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This was supposed to be a quiet and enjoyable offseason for Arizona State. The Sun Devils capped off a 9-3 season in 2004 with a come-from-behind 27-23 victory over Purdue in the Sun Bowl. Even better, ASU had many key players returning from that team, and junior quarterback Sam Keller -- the heir apparent to Andrew Walter -- threw for 370 yards and three touchdowns in relief of Walter against the Boilermakers in his first career start, establishing himself as a potential elite quarterback in the Pac-10.
ASU's serenity was shattered, though, in the early-morning hours of March 27 when tailback Loren Wade was arrested and charged with first-degree murder in the shooting death of former Sun Devil Brandon Falkner.
Wade's arrest stunned the ASU community, and coach Dirk Koetter was criticized for keeping the running back on the team prior to the incident -- particularly in light of the fact that Wade had been suspended for the final nine games of the 2004 season for receiving improper benefits from a university employee.
Against that backdrop, the Sun Devils renewed spring practice and tried to prepare for a '05 season in which they're expected to finish in the top three in the Pac-10 and play in consecutive bowl games for the first time since 1997.
"The way we were able to win the bowl game definitely jump-started us into next season," Koetter said.
But that was before Falkner's death. How ASU recovers from the tragedy could determine the direction of the 2005 season.
Arizona State returns eight offensive starters from '04, but the Sun Devils' high hopes are based on a player who didn't start. Keller wowed the coaching staff by completing 25-of-45 passes in the Sun Bowl victory.
"The thing about Sam is that the players believe in him," Koetter said. "Sam has got a great attitude, and he has all the skills that you need to be a great quarterback in the Pac-10."
Keller will have a deep and talented set of receivers to throw to, led by senior Derek Hagan, who caught 83 passes for 1,248 yards last year, and tight end Zach Miller, who nearly made fans do the impossible last season and forget Todd Heap.
ASU boasts a veteran offensive line, but with Wade gone, the big question is at running back. Wade's backup, Randy Hill, is coming off reconstructive knee surgery, which leaves the starting job to Rudy Burgess. Burgess may be ASU's best athlete, but at 5-foot-11, 175 pounds, he's not built to take a pounding for 11 games.
ASU should be strong at linebacker and in the secondary, but will it get enough pressure on the passer? The Sun Devils lost pass-rush specialist Ishmael Thrower and defensive tackle Jimmy Verdon. Kyle Caldwell and Jordan Hill return -- they each had seven sacks in 2004 -- but the other two spots are unsettled and there's not much depth along the line.
"We probably don't have a Terrell Suggs guy screaming off that edge," Koetter said in reference to the former ASU All-American defensive end now playing with the Baltimore Ravens.
The linebacking corps took a hit in the spring when projected starter Matt Fawley quit the team. This unit, however, should still be strong with two senior starters -- Jamar Williams and Dale Robinson.
The secondary also is deep and talented. Senior R.J. Oliver received a medical redshirt year and should be a shutdown corner.
Placekicker Jesse Ainsworth has a strong leg but needs to work on his accuracy. Punter Chris McDonald, a former walk-on, averaged 43.1 yards per kick. Koetter would like to see more hang time on his punts.
Burgess is ASU's best punt returner, but if he is the starting tailback, Koetter will be hesitant to use him on special teams.
Wade's arrest sent shock waves through ASU. University president Michael Crow launched an investigation into the athletic department's actions regarding Wade -- particularly, why he remained on the team despite threatening two female athletes.
Then there's Wade's loss on the field, leaving ASU thin at tailback and putting additional pressure on Keller, who's made one career start. How ASU responds to Wade's arrest -- and his absence -- will determine its course this season.