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Previewing The Missouri Tigers’ 2011 Opponents: Arizona State

The Dennis Erickson era started out well at Arizona State in 2007 when the Sun Devils went 10-3, earning a share of the Pac 10 title and a berth in the Holiday Bowl. The last three years, however, have been full of disappointments. They have failed to reach a bowl game each of the last three seasons, finishing no better than a tie for fifth in conference play. With that being said, the Sun Devils return most of their team from a season ago and are just on the outside looking in of the first ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll.

The schedule sets up nicely as they get most of their tougher opponents at home. They open the season at home against UC Davis before hosting one of the biggest non-conference matchups of the season when Gary Pinkel brings his Missouri Tigers to Tempe for a nationally televised showdown. The Sun Devils round out their out of conference slate with a tough road test in Champaign against Ron Zook and the Illinois Fighting Illini.

The conference schedule opens with two home games against USC and Oregon State before hitting the road for two tough ones against Pac 12 newcomer Utah and the defending Pac 10 champion Oregon Ducks. The back end of the schedule sets up the best for the Devils as they return home for a matchup with Colorado before hitting the road again for two more at UCLA and Washington State. They will look to finish strong at home against rival Arizona before the regular season finale against California.

Brock Osweiler sits alone atop the depth chart (literally) at quarterback heading into 2011 after Steven Threet’s football career was cut short after suffering a concussion towards the end of last year. Threet was knocked out of the home finale against UCLA in the first quarter with the Sun Devils already trailing 17-0.

Enter Brock Osweiler.

All the 6’8" quarterback did was throw three first half touchdown passes  to give the Sun Devils a 21-20 lead by halftime and they were able to pull away in the second half for a 55-34 victory. Osweiler finished that day completing 27 of 36 passes for 380 yards and four touchdowns and zero interceptions.

It wasn’t too bad of an encore the next week when Arizona State won on the road at Arizona 30-29, blocking their second extra point of the day in double overtime to preserve the win. Osweiler was not as efficient, but still managed to throw for 267 yards, a touchdown pass and no interceptions.

Osweiler loses two of his top three targets from a year ago in Kerry Taylor and T.J. Simpson, but the Sun Devils return the rest of what was a deep receiving corps a season ago. Mike Willie, who figures to be the main target, led Arizona State with six touchdown catches while pulling in 36 catches for 442 yards. Willie stands in at 6’4", just one of a number of big targets Osweiler will have to choose from - not that the big quarterback will have any problem seeing over the line. Gerell Robinson, another tall wideout, and Aaron Pflugrad each caught 29 passes in 2010. Robinson finished second on the team with five touchdown catches.

Receivers George Bell, Jamal Miles, and A.J. Pickens also figure to play significant roles in the passing game as well. The Sun Devils return their starting tight end from a year ago, Trever Kohl, but tight ends don’t get too involved in the passing game as Kohl caught just two passes in 11 games in 2010.

The top eight offensive linemen from a year ago return as the bunch figures to use its cohesiveness to keep Osweiler upright and to create running lanes for running backs Cameron Marshall, Deantre Lewis and Kyle Middlebrooks.

Marshall led the way a year ago and figures to do so again in 2011. He ran for 787 yards and nine touchdowns while catching 21 passes out of the backfield for 227 yards and another touchdown. Lewis did a fine job in a backup role as a true freshman racking up 539 yards and four touchdowns on 92 carries. He also added 370 yards receiving and pair of touchdown catches.

Lewis, however, was the victim of a stray bullet from a random shooting while back home in Norco, Calif. in February. He is expected to be at 100 percent, but should he have any issues, sophomore Kyle Middlebrooks should see the majority of the backup repetitions. Middlebrooks compiled 82 yards and a touchdown on the ground in 2010 as well as 86 receiving yards out of the backfield in limited action as a freshman.

When the Arizona State defense is on the field this year, you can expect to see a lot of and hear a lot about Vontaze Burfict. The junior linebacker is coming off a season full of accolades that included a spot on the Sporting News’ First-Team All-American defense, the Sun Devils’ first such recipient since Terrell Suggs in 2002.

Burfict brings a ton of hype into the 2011 campaign, as you would expect, being named to a number of preseason All-American teams and also being named to multiple award watch lists (Nagurski Trophy, Lombardi Award, Bednarik Trophy, Butkus Award and the Walter Camp Award). Burfict led the way for the Sun Devils a season ago with 90 tackles and eight and a half for loss, also forcing two fumbles and breaking up three passes.

Fellow linebacker Brandon Magee will be back alongside Burfict this year. Magee was second on the team in tackles a year ago with 73, with five being for loss. He added one and a half sacks to go along with a fumble recovery. The third linebacker spot will be one of two seniors, Oliver Aaron or Shelly Lyons. Aaron received the bulk of the playing time a year ago, forcing two fumbles and coming through with seven and a half tackles for loss, good for fourth on the team.

The defensive line should be an experienced group as they return a pair of talented defensive ends in Jamaar Jarrett and Junior Onyeali. Jarrett, now a senior, recorded 40 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss and four and a half sacks in 2010. Onyeali, more of a pass rush specialist, recorded 11.5 tackles for loss and six and a half sacks in his freshman campaign.

The Sun Devils also get back sophomore defensive tackle Will Sutton, who started two games as a freshman in 2009 before being declared academically ineligible before last season. Sutton appeared in all twelve games two years ago and his return should have a big impact on the front four.

Rounding out the defensive line is senior Bo Moos, who played a valuable role on special teams a year ago, appearing in eleven games. Moos earned the Hard Hat player recognition award for his work in the team’s offseason strength and conditioning program. Look for him to provide a steady motor all season long up front.

The secondary will be missing a key cog for likely all of the season as cornerback Omar Bolden, who passed up the NFL draft to return for his senior year, tore his ACL in spring practice. Bolden led the Sun Devils last season with three interceptions. Filling the void at cornerback alongside sophomore Osahon Irabor will likely be fellow sophomore Alden Darby, who moved over from safety in Bolden’s absence. It was reported a few days ago that the sophomore duo has been stepping up in preseason practice, giving the Sun Devil wide receivers all they can handle.

Senior Eddie Elder and junior Keelan Johnson will provide help over the top at the safety position. Elder was third on the team in tackles in 2010 and came up with a pair of interceptions. Johnson added an interception of his own in a reserve role.

The Sun Devils never seem to be able to live up to the hype when it’s there. That hype is here again heading into the 2011 season. Will they be able to reverse the outcome this time around? We’ll see, but it seems a lot more likely with the parts coming back and the way the schedule sets up.

They are put in a good spot early when nationally ranked Missouri makes the trip west across two time zones for a nationally televised night game with a young quarterback in James Franklin making only his second career start in what should be a raucous environment.

Outside of back-to-back trips to Utah and Oregon, their toughest opponents, USC and Arizona, have to come to Tempe in what shakes out to be very favorable schedule for a veteran team.