Each week from now until the first game of the 2013 Sun Devil football season, the ASU media relations department will release a position group summary for every spot on the Sun Devil roster. These will provide in-depth detail on the top returners, promising newcomers and all you could need to know about each position as we head into what should be another exciting season under Todd Graham.
The first batch of summaries will focus on the offensive side of the ball, and this week we review the 2013 Sun Devil Offensive Line.
by Jeremy Hawkes
In 2012, the Sun Devil offense benefitted from an offensive line that remained consistent and largely injury free over the course of the season. The team’s typical starting five of Brice Schwab, Andrew Sampson, Kody Koebensky, Jamil Douglas and Evan Finkenberg all combined to miss just three games in a season that saw the Sun Devils put up the second-best season on the ground in 25 years while allowing quarterback Taylor Kelly to post some of the most impressive numbers in program history.
Gone this year is the right side of that line with Schwab and Sampson lost to graduation. Additionally, the Sun Devils will welcome a new coach on the line in Chris Thomsen. Thomsen spent the last season at Texas Tech, where he also coached the offensive line. He was one of ASU’s first hires under the Graham era before taking the position with the Red Raiders, a team that finished 35th in the nation last season in sacks allowed at 1.46 per game.
Thomsen inherits a Sun Devil squad with plenty of experience, however, with just one redshirt and one true freshman on the roster. But the team also has just two seniors in the lineup as well, giving the group a chance to continue to grow over the course of the season to bring a strong batch back next year.
One of those seniors is left tackle Evan Finkenberg, a young man that will be invaluable to the Sun Devils’ cause this season. A four-year starter watching over the blind side, Finkenberg enters the season with 34 starts under his belt. That mark is third-most among all players in the Pac-12 behind just Utah’s Brian Blechen and Oregon State’s Michael Phillipp, who each have 35. The total is also 28th among all returning FBS players.
Finkenberg has played in each of the 38 games ASU has played in the past three seasons and earned Pac-12 Honorable Mention accolades last season. His strength lies in his explosiveness and mobility that allows him to defend against multiple rush attacks and has seen him hold his ground against such future NFL Draft picks as JJ Watt (Wisconsin/RD 1-Green Bay Packers), Cameron Jordon (Cal/RD 1-Baltimore Ravens), Star Lotulelei (Utah/RD 1-Carolina Panthers), Dion Jordan (Oregon/ RD 1-Miami Dolphins) and Stephen Paea (Oregon State/RD 2-Chicago Bears).
Thomsen said the challenge for Finkenberg this season will be to find new challenges and not keep doing the same old thing. Thomsen also wants Finkenberg to emerge as a leader of the team and continue to bring the same intensity and focus to the practice field, weight room and film room each day.
The team’s other senior comes in the form of Kody Koebensky at center. Koebensky started all 13 games from the position last season and has seen action in 29 career games. He was named to the Rimington Award Preseason Watch List during the offseason, given annual to the nation’s top center.
A local product out of Saguaro High School, he filled the void left by former All-Conference Center Garth Gerhart and established himself as a guy that could avoid injuries and remain consistent throughout the season.
Thomsen hopes Gerhart will become more of a physical presence this season and to help Finkenberg from a leadership standpoint, though he credits Koebensky for being a focused player that understands what is going on and what the team is trying to achieve and Thomsen believes that what makes him such a good player.
Finkenberg and Koebensky each earned their degrees following last season and are continuing graduate coursework in 2013-14.
The team’s final returning starter comes in the form of redshirt junior Jamil Douglas, who will be making the transition from left guard to right tackle this season to replace Schwab. Douglas started all 13 contests last season and has the athleticism to make the shift to tackle and be successful.
Douglas spent the spring going against Carl Bradford, a task that would prove tough for even the most seasoned of tackles. Thomsen credited him for overcoming the initial awkwardness of the role and to put his explosiveness, athleticism and long arms to use to start winning some of those matchups as the spring went on. Thomsen hopes that Douglas can continue to improve upon his consistency and notes the importance of summer and training camp for a guy like that adjusting to a new position.
Filing the hole left by Douglas at left guard was Sil Ajawara over the spring, where he finished at the top of the depth chart in the position. A smart, explosive player, Ajawara has seen action in spurts during his first two seasons but will need to make the adjustment to a guy that can play every down this season.
Thomsen likes his long arms and big frame and thinks that will translate well in the pass protection side of things and the coach credits him for trying hard to improve on the day-to-day things. While he may be challenged during the preseason and even into the season, Thomsen believes the guard role is Ajawara’s to lose.
Filling out the projected starting lineup at right guard this season will be redshirt sophomore Vi Teofilo. Teofilo started three games at the position last season in place of Sampson and appeared in all but one game as a redshirt freshman but the former Moon Valley prep standout will need to make the transition to being an every-day guy.
Thomsen said he has challenged Teofilo to improve upon his consistency and not be great one day and just alright the next. Thomsen credits Teofilo as being a strong player, but someone who needs to put that on display every down.
The most seasoned of the 2013 reserves will be redshirt junior Tyler Sulka, who finished the spring as Douglas’ back-up at the right tackle position. Sulka appeared in all but one game last season and even saw action as an extra blocking tight end over the course of the year, showing off his versatility.
Sulka’s biggest test will be adding size to his frame, as he was just around 278 pounds when Thomsen arrived in the spring. He finished the offseason around 288 and Thomsen hopes for him to get above 290 to allow him to be a physical presence on the field. Of all the reserves, Thomsen feels Sulka has the most potential to move into a starting role.
If Sulka can establish himself at tackle, Thomsen would then move Douglas back to guard but if Douglas is the man at tackle then it is still possible for Sulka to crack the starting lineup and challenge one of the two newcomers at in the current starting lineup as a guard. Thomsen believes Sulka can be a starting Pac-12 lineman and has challenged him to prove it in the offseason.
One guy that has immediately come in and added some much-needed depth to the center position is junior college transfer Nick Kelly. An American River College graduate with four years to play three, Kelly came in and showed promise in the spring and is a guy that works hard and did the things necessary to adjust to the D-I level during the offseason.
His addition allowed the Sun Devils to move Mo Latu back to a spot on the defensive line, adding depth to that position, and Thomsen has challenged him to push Koebensky for the starting role at center.
Evan Goodman was one of ASU’s most highly touted recruits entering last season and saw rare action as a true freshman in all but two games last year. A versatile lineman, Goodman has the physical tools to challenge for a spot at any position on the line and finished the season on the two-deep at left tackle.
Goodman has a high ceiling and is an explosive, dynamic and quick player that was troubled by injuries in the spring that Thomsen hopes will be alleviated heading into the preseason to allow him to truly challenge for a spot.
Goodman’s brother, Devin, also saw action last year and Thomsen was impressed with his play in the spring and hopes for him to add some size and strength. He currently finds himself as the backup to Ajawara at left guard on ASU’s depth chart.
Stephon McCray missed the spring with a knee injury but is someone that could come in and challenge based upon his work ethic and athleticism when healthy. After redshirting last year, the former four-star recruit is someone Thomsen hopes he can work on developing through the season to be able to fill a roll in case of injury.
William McGehee and Chip Sarafin are the team’s tallest lineman at 6-5 and 6-6, respectively, and at 301 and 353 pounds are both big guys that will add depth to the roster.
Two players that likely won’t see the field this year are Christian Westerman and Jack Powers. Westerman spent the past two seasons as Auburn and was a five-star recruit out of Hamilton High. While he likely will make an instant impact next season, he will be expected to sit out the season do the NCAA transfer regulations.
Powers was an All-State player at Salinas Palam High in California and rated as the No. 61 offensive tackle recruit in the nation last season that will likely redshirt this season as he works to get his body to a Division-I caliber size while learning the system.