The spotlight shined too brightly on Arizona State last season. Expectations of a top 20 finish and at least a runner-up finish in the Pac-10 weren't met. Instead, the Sun Devils suffered a second losing season in three years.
Well, that spotlight is gone, and with it the pressure of high expectations.
"We're not picked to be anything, so there should be no pressure on us from outside sources," said senior quarterback Andrew Walter. "We're in the same situation we were two years ago." Coming off a 4-7 campaign in 2001, the Sun Devils finished third in the Pac-10 in '02 and played in the Holiday Bowl.
"What we need to do is focus inward on what we need to do to get better and then go out there and play," Walter said.
Skepticism abounds, but ASU believes that changes made after the season -- including roster deletions, a two-week boot camp immediately after the season, modifications of the offseason workouts, and changes to the offense and the defense -- will result in more wins and a bowl bid.
OffensePass-oriented Arizona State will fling it out of a base twin-tight end set this season. Fullback has been deleted from the playbook because of a dearth of quality players at the position and an overload of depth at tight end.
Walter, who passed for 3,044 yards and 24 touchdowns last season, will need to be more accomplished in the intermediate passing game in this offense, with more passes aimed in the middle of the field.
Loren Wade established himself as a quality back last fall, gaining 773 yards on a healthy 5.7-yard average.
Coach Dirk Koetter still loves multiple wide receiver sets, but he's still looking for someone to pair with junior Derek Hagan, coming off a 66-catch, 1,076-yard season.
The offensive line features four players with starting experience, led by Grayling Love, a second-team all-conference selection at tackle who is moving to guard. It is a strength of the team.
The experienced line and running backs have a goal of increasing the ground output of 117.3 yards.
"That should open up stuff for us in the passing game," Walter said.
DefenseA modification of the defense was due after ASU struggled for the third consecutive season against Pac-10 competition; the Devils ranked eighth in the league in total defense, allowing 404.8 yards per game.
ASU is calling one of its three safeties a linebacker in a 4-3-4 defense. The players manning the new position are defensive backs, not traditional linebackers, but they'll play closer to the line of scrimmage.
Defensive coordinator Brent Guy said that the 4-3 package that's always been in ASU's 4-2-5 system is being emphasized more.
ASU has had difficulty in recent years recruiting defensive linemen, and the front is the biggest concern on the team. A pair of junior college defensive tackles arriving in August, DeWayne Hollyfield and Quency Darley, are expected to strengthen a depleted area.
Jamar Williams and Justin Burks were first-time starters at linebacker and will be better with a year's experience.
The same cast returns at cornerback, led by senior R.J. Oliver, but Koetter is looking for an upgrade in performance after he fired last year's cornerbacks coach and replaced him with former NFL All-Pro safety Mark Carrier.
The re-examination of the defense revealed that the safeties had too much to think about. This season Riccardo Stewart and the other safeties will do less thinking and more hitting.
SpecialistsSophomore Jessie Ainsworth is back to handle the placements. Walk-on Chris MacDonald was the punter in the spring. A recruited walk-on or late-summer signing could produce another kicking prospect in the fall. Junior Josh Golden is the leading punt returner, and Hakim Hill has experience returning kickoffs.
Final AnalysisKoetter is feeling the heat in Tempe with two losing seasons in his three years. And it's not just from the fans. The ASU athletic department needs to retire a $1.3 million debt and a successful football program is part of the solution.
The schedule offers some relief with Iowa at home and an extra week to prepare for defending co-national champion USC.
With the wealth of offense in the Pac-10, ASU's rise is contingent on improved play from the revamped defense.