Practice makes Osweiler

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Arizona State quarterback Brock Osweiler views himself as a "gamer," a guy who flips a switch on game day but may not always be at his best in practice. Sun Devils offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone views himself as a guy who thinks that's a load of, er, crud.

Mazzone wants to talk about practice. Not a game, not a game, not a game but practice.

"I said, 'Brock, I'm going to be honest with you. Don't give me this [crud] that you're a game player. That don't fly with me,'" Mazzone said. "To me, a guy who's not a great practice guy is a guy who can't focus."

Osweiler didn't get off to a great start this spring, but he and the offense played better as the practices rolled on. And, of course, Osweiler peaked in the spring game, throwing five touchdown passes, which inspired confidence that he can lead Arizona State to the top of the Pac-12 South Division next fall.

That's critical because Osweiler became the starter by default this offseason. After a tight battle last spring and preseason, Osweiler lost out to Michigan transfer Steven Threet. While Threet threw too many interceptions, he also led the second-best passing offense in the conference. He went down against UCLA in game 11 with his third concussion, and Osweiler was brilliant in relief and then beat arch-rival Arizona.

While many figured Osweiler would beat out Threet in the spring, Mazzone said that was far from certain. What is certain is Threet is standing on the Sun Devils' sidelines now, helping coach instead of competing for the starting job because of recurrent concussions.

That means Osweiler is the man, for better or worse. If he isn't up to the job the alternatives are two players with no experience: redshirt freshman Taylor Kelly and true freshman Mike Bercovici. For his part, Osweiler thinks he's a better quarterback today because of the disappointment of last year.

"Not winning the quarterback competition, it bettered me as a person and as a football player," he said. "It's easy to be the guy who goes in from day one and plays and gets what he wants. I think I grew as an athlete to be put in that competition situation and lose it because I learned so much from it."

Part of that was learning to practice well consistently.

"That's what [coach Dennis Erickson] and Coach Mazzone told me after last year: I need to show it in practice more: 'If you want to be the guy, you've got to be the guy in practice too,'" Osweiler said.

Part of this is symbolic: The quarterback needs to set an example for the team in practice. But Osweiler's lack of distinction in practice had another side-effect: His teammates didn't know what to make of him. More than a few thought the offense might be in trouble when Threet went down.

"It amazed me last year when they put him in," cornerback Deveron Carr said. "He was scrambling, throwing. I was amazed. I didn't know that Brock. I hadn't played against that Brock. I didn't remember that Brock coming to Arizona State. Something clicked in his heart or his mind that he could be great."

And now? Said Carr, "He's matured a lot. He makes better decisions. He looks stronger. He's just an all-around better quarterback."

Osweiler was mostly forgotten before he came on in relief for Threet against UCLA and led the Sun Devils back from a 17-0 deficit with a tour de force performance. He passed for 380 yards and four touchdowns and ran for another score as the Sun Devils rolled 55-17. The win over Arizona, however, was a bit deceiving. Osweiler was terrible in the first half and was fortunate to have a number of easy interceptions dropped. Further, if the Wildcats had not flubbed a pair of extra points the Sun Devils' smiles likely wouldn't have been so wide heading into the offseason.

Osweiler believes he's significantly better today than when he came off the bench last November.

"My skill set is almost night and day if you want to compare it to the Arizona game last year to right now," he said. "I put in a lot of hard work in the offseason to better than skill set."

Erickson and Mazzone said that Osweiler understands the offense better and has improved his mechanics, changing his throwing motion to speed up his release. While the 6-foot-8 Osweiler looks like a prototypical pocket passer, he runs a 4.7 40-yard dash. His 56 yards rushing in the win over Arizona were critical.

By the end of spring practices -- practices, not a game -- Erickson saw Osweiler putting it all together. "He just flowed better," Erickson said.

Of course, this fall, our measure of Osweiler and the Sun Devils will be what they do in the games, not practice.