Sun Devil Football Ready to Soar
High-powered offense fuels high expectations for 1998 team.
April 28, 1998
So what'll you do for an encore?
That was the question Arizona State Head Coach Bruce Snyder had to find an answer for after the Sun Devils came within a minute and a half of claiming the school's first-ever national title. How would he maintain the new status-quo it had taken him five years to build - and do it without the likes of Jake Plummer, Keith Poole, Terry Battle and Derrick Rodgers, all who had moved on to greener pastures in the NFL.
In a day when teams are measured by "what have you done for me lately?," Snyder proved the Sun Devils' mettle as a now "perennial contender" by following up the improbable season with another impressive season and another bowl bid. Though the indelible images of Plummer, Poole, Rodgers, and the other departed members of the 1996 Rose Bowl team will never be forgotten, there is still one element from that team that has remained ... success.
Entering the 1997 campaign, the Sun Devils' run to Pasadena was nothing more than an afterthought on the minds of coaches and media members around the nation who made up their respective polls. Appearing in the "Others Receiving Votes" portion of those pre-season polls and picked to finish fifth in the conference , which they had dominated one season earlier, did not deter the returning Sun Devils, but instead added fuel to the fire.
"We had a great group of kids last year that were determined not to let the glitter of one season get in the way of success," says Snyder.
While it may be true the Devils' 1997 season did not come up a bed of roses, there is much about last year's (to some improbable) season that cannot be overlooked. Indeed the proof is in the pudding of the Devils' (now annual) national prominence.
Consider for a moment that Arizona State ...
"It's really great to see the all the work, long hours and commitment of our staff finally coming to fruition," says Snyder.
Certainly there is no time like the present, and the current state of Sun Devil football is one of ASU fans whetting their appetites not just for a winning season, or a top-third finish in the Pac-10 or even a win over Arizona for that matter, but for the chance to be called the best - in the nation!
Is there such a notion as too much of a good thing?
That may be one of the questions Bruce Snyder ponders as he prepares for spring football.
Personnel-wise, the Sun Devils return one of the most potent offensive units in 1998. Eight starters return from last year's team that averaged 34.3 points and 458.3 yards per game during the last six regular-season games of the '97 campaign.
All this carries well for the offense that runs with the philosophy of throwing to score and running to win.
"I believe we have the foundation in place for a great year offensively," says Snyder. "We have a great quarterback who matured faster than anyone thought he would, a playmaker in the backfield who always makes things exciting, a group of receivers who have really come together and an offensive line that has matured through some growing pains and is ready to flourish."
Headlining the group will be '97 offensive Most Valuable Player and 1998 Heisman Trophy candidate J.R. Redmond, the finest all-purpose player in the nation.
"I think he may be the best college football player in the country," Snyder says of Redmond, who reeled off three runs of 50 yards or more last year, including a 93-yard touchdown dash in the season's opening game versus New Mexico State.
Getting him the ball, whether it be on the ground or through the air, will be sophomore quarterback and Sporting News First-Team Freshman all-America Ryan Kealy. Kealy, who went down with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in the regular-season finale against Arizona, exceeded expectations as a redshirt freshman last year, breaking ASU frosh records for most completions, touchdowns and yards.
Also returning in the Devils' arsenal of weapons will be flyback and pre-season all-America candidate Jeff Paulk, wide receiver and pre-season all-America candidate Lenzie Jackson , wide receivers Kenny Mitchell, Creig Spann and Ricky Boyer, and tight ends Kendrick Bates, and Matt Cercone.
That's just the skill positions.
Up front the Devils return one of the more formidable groups in the nation, led by center and pre-season all-America candidate Grey Ruegamer, who Cozzetto says "in my opinion is the best center in the country." Also returning for their second year in the trenches will be left tackle Marvel Smith and right guard Victor Leyva.
Entering the 1997 season there was some doubt among the Sun Devil faithful if Bruce Snyder would be able to find a quarterback who could carry on and sustain the legacy that Jake "The Snake" Plummer had created.
Not just a quarterback who could get the ball from point A to point B, but one who had embedded in him the intangibles that can't be measured. The leadership qualities that can carry a team to victory when it has to dig deep late in a close game.
Enter redshirt freshman Ryan Kealy.
Kealy not only distinguished himself as one of the best freshmen quarterbacks in the Pac-10, but as one of the best quarterbacks in the nation.
"I think it started coming together when Ryan became comfortable," Snyder says of last year's surge that saw ASU win five straight late-season games with Kealy at the helm.
Unfortunately for ASU, an ill-fated collision versus Arizona in the regular-season finale left Kealy with a torn ACL.
"I think the number-one thing to do is make sure that Ryan is healthy and that we don't push him too much in the spring," says Snyder.
In the last six regular-season games in '97, Kealy completed 94 of 169 aerials for 1,264 yards, 11 touchdown strikes with only three interceptions. Doing the complicated NCAA arithmetic, those numbers added up to a 136.4 pass efficiency rating.
However Kealy's impact could not only be measured in numbers.
Like any young quarterback growing pains would be a part of Kealy's process. Games at Washington, Oregon State and Miami tested the young quarterback last season. However, the results were there when it mattered most. This was abundantly clear in ASU's victory over Washington State in which Kealy sizzled to the tune of 185 yards and three touchdowns in the first half alone. The cool and calm quarterback then weathered the storm of a furious Cougars comeback that eventually saw them capture the lead. With great precision Kealy drove the Devils to the eventual go-ahead touchdown early in the fourth quarter.
"He is learning more everyday and I think the more he plays the better he is going to get," says Cozzetto.
Cozzetto says his mission in spring football will be to see who will be backing up Kealy.
The candidates include 6'8" senior signal caller Steve Campbell, who led the Sun Devils to a Sun Bowl victory over Iowa last December, and redshirt freshman Chad Elliott.
Campbell is the elder statesman of the Sun Devil quarterbacking corps.
"His knowledge of the game is exceptional, he is almost like a coach on the field," says quarterbacks coach John Pettas.
While his mobility and accuracy may be a question mark, his arm strength is not. Campbell has the ability to get the ball anywhere from almost any point on the field.
With Campbell on the sidelines the Sun Devils always know they have an experienced, fundamentally-sound replacement at the ready.
Elliott, who entered the Sun Devil program as a 1996 USA Today honorable-mention all-America, is an accurate passer who needs to gain playing experience in the program.
"He throws well and has great athleticism," says Pettas. "I would say the big thing with him is gaining more knowledge of the offense."
Also in the mix will be junior Chad Brown, who Pettas says has great athleticism in running bootlegs and options, and walkon Jason Anderson, a 6-1, 204-pound sophomore from Morrison, Colo., and Scott Farison, who brings great size (6-2, 210) to the position.
Arriving in the fall will be freshman Matt Cooper, who was one of two top quarterbacks listed at the Northern California Combine. Cooper, who passed for 1,591 yards and 14 touchdowns as a junior, was selected all-Region by Super Prep.
When you take a look at championship teams they all have one thing in common: being able to run the ball when it counts. That is the philosophy Bruce Snyder has imported to all all of his teams. Sun Devil ballcarriers have set the standard in the Pac-10 over the last two seasons, averaging 248.6 and 193 yards per game in '96 and '97, respectively.
This year should be no different.
Leading the ground surge will be junior Heisman Trophy candidate J.R. Redmond, arguably the most dangerous offensive weapon in the nation.
Redmond's style embodies exactly what a big-time runner is all about: being able to score from anywhere on the field at anytime.
"J.R. is a very deceptive runner," says Cozzetto. "You'll never get a square hit on him and if he makes you miss once, you'll never get a second shot at him."
Redmond averaged 86.5 rushing yards per contest last year in a system that had him as the secondary back to senior Michael Martin. This year ASU plans to use the speedster as its featured back, hopefully getting him the football between 25 and 30 times a game.
Over the first two years of his ASU career, Redmond has averaged 5.6 yards each time he has touched the football out of the backfield. In last year's season opener versus New Mexico State, Redmond ran for a career-best 176 yards, including a 93-yard touchdown burst, the fifth-longest in school history.
What makes Redmond even more dangerous is the fact that he is equally effective catching the ball out of the backfield. In his Sun Devil career, Redmond has averaged 16 yards per catch and has scored three times.
Looking at the two deep there is not much of a drop when you look at the talent backing up Redmond.
The Sun Devils will look to senior tailback Marlon Farlow to give ASU perhaps the best one-two punch at running back in the nation. Farlow has 1,000-yard potential.
In Farlow the Devils have an excellent athlete who, like Redmond, has the speed to take it the distance any time, or to start for most teams.
Last year Farlow made the most of his 57 attempts. He was the only Sun Devil ballcarrier to have three runs of 50 yards or more last year, scoring a pair of touchdowns in the process.
Farlow averaged an astonishing 7.9 yards per carry last season with the best game of his career coming at Stanford, gaining 129 yards on 13 totes, including a 60-yard touchdown run.
"Marlon did a lot of work in the offseason last year and it showed," says Cozzetto. "He is a great runner. He will burst through a hole and when he gets through it then its a foot race."
Also battling for playing time in the Devils backfield will be redshirt freshmen Davaren Hightower and Larry Montgomery and junior Morris Williams.
Hightower will play a more pivotal role as he gains experience in the offensive scheme, which he spent much of last year doing as a redshirt.
As a high school senior in 1996, Hightower was heavily recruited by Texas and Texas A&M. He possesses great athletic versatility with the ability to throw the football.
During his high school career, he rushed for 2,202 yards, averaging 8.5 yards per carry.
Montgomery's potential evokes some comparisons to Michael Martin. A back with good size (6-2, 217) who likes to run between the tackles, grinding out yardage.
"I think Hightower and Montgomery both have great potential," says Cozetto. "They are both big backs who have the ability to break tackles."
On the recruiting front, ASU captured a pair of athletes, Kyran Jones, of Phoenix, and J.R. Peroulis, who both bring plenty of potential to Tempe.
Jones was rated the No. 10 running back in the nation by SuperPrep and Peroulis was a member of the Colorado Class 5A All-State first-team.
At a position where the Sun Devils have an all-American candidate in the form of Jeff Paulk, there is an element of uncertainty in the air as to who will lend support in giving depth to one of the offense's most important positions.
"I think that it is important that during the spring and at Camp Tontozona we look at who is going to be our flyback of the future," says Snyder.
Though the flyback may not be the featured ballcarrier, his position is one of the most important in the backfield in leading tailbacks to daylight.
ASU must find a flyback who is capable as soon as possible should the Devils find themsevles in the ill-fated position they are in right now without Paulk, who will miss the first week of spring practice due to a thumb injury.
In Paulk, ASU has one of the best blocking fullbacks in the nation who can also run the ball for substantial gains when called upon.
In 1998 Paulk will resemble something of a one-man wrecking crew when he throws his 6-1, 250-pound frame into opposing defenders.
After having a breakthrough year running the football in 1996, Paulk's rushing productivity dropped last year due to a lack of carries, something Cozzetto would like to change in 1998.
"I think we have to get (Paulk) the football more this year," says Cozzetto. "I feel very comfortable with him running the football because he knows the system well."
One of the possible heirs to Paulk is sophomore Darrin Ransom who, like Paulk, will be missing spring ball due to a knee injury.
Ransom played in only two games last year, including the season opener versus New Mexico State when he started in place of Paulk.
"Darrin is a physical player who can really mix it up inside as a blocker," says Cozzetto.
Playing flyback in the spring is going to be Stephen Garcia, a 6-0, 221-pound junior out of Albuquerque, N.M., who also plays linebacker.
Garcia's presence in spring ball will until the Devils' wounded heal. Also filling in the backfield will be tight ends Kendrick Bates and Brian Jennings.
Cozzetto looks forward to the arrival of recruits Jake Each and Darrell Turner in the fall.
Both recruits possess good blocking and running skills. Each, for examlple, averaged 6.0 yards per carry at Muscatine High School in Iowa.
While every team needs a running game that can get the tough yard when it counts, having receivers who can make the big catch also contributes to the foundation of a championship team.
This fall college football fans who live in the Valley need look no further then their own back yard to findperhaps the deepest receiving corps in the Pac-10 and possibly in the nation.
Headlining the group that will make up ASU's aerial assault is senior and pre-season all-America candidate Lenzie Jackson.
"I think Lenzie may be the best receiver in the Pac-10," says Cozzetto.
Jackson followed up his sensational sophomore campaign with a 53-reception, 733-yard performance in 1997, including five touchdown catches. The 53 receptions represented the sixth-highest single-season mark in ASU history.
Jackson caught four passes or more on eight occasions in '97, including games ofseven receptions for 132 yards and one touchdown versus USC and nine receptions for 89 yards and two scores versus Washington State. The 132 yards receiving and nine receptions were both career benchmarks for Jackson.
Jackson's opposite number on the other side could several players, including senior Kenny Mitchell, whom Cozzetto expects big things from in '98.
"Kenny is a receiver who has great size," says Cozzetto. "I have confidence that he can go up top against anyone and come down with the football."
It seems like just yesterday that Mitchell burst onto the scene of Sun Devil football as a true freshman with a five-reception, 106-yard outing at Oregon.
Though his productivity has slipped from that pace over the course of the last two years, Cozzetto knows the potential is there for Mitchell to perform at anytime.
Cases in point were Mitchell's outings at Miami and against Washington State last year when he showed his ability to come up big when it mattered most. At Miami, Jackson's leadership was key in leading a young Sun Devil team to victory with a team-high four receptions for 70 yards. Versus the No. 10 Cougars, Mitchell caught five balls for 85 yards and one score.
Like Jackson and Mitchell, senior Ricky Boyer also played as a true freshman in 1995.
"These three receivers have seen everything since they have been here," says Snyder. "They have experienced the growing pains playing as true freshmen, they have excelled as a group together and now I believe they are on the edge of a great senior season."
In Boyer the Sun Devils have a superb athlete whose gamebreaking speed is capable of stretching a secondary to the limit.
"I think Ricky will be a solid receiver for us," says Cozzetto. "His experience, like with Jackson and Mitchell, will serve him well."
Last year Boyer broke through the coverages of opposing secondarys 21 times for 285 yards. Four of those occasions to the end zone.
Nicknamed "The Rocket," Boyer also found success on the ground, carrying the ball on reverses seven times for 90 yards.
Aiding ASU's receiving game will be tremendous depth, including sophomores Tariq McDonald and Brian Forth, and senior Creig Spann, who was granted an extra year of eligibility by the NCAA because of a season-ending ACL injury that saw his season end after the second game of the 1996 season.
Before injuring his knee, Spann was arguably the fastest player on the squad. Last season, Spann proved to be instrumental, catching 11 balls for 168 yards. His best game of the year came at California when he hauled nine passes for 105 yards, including a 67-yard touchdown strike from Kealy.
Forth looks to get even more playing time this year after getting minimal reps as a redshirt freshman.]
"Brian runs great routes, has great speed and should be a real plus for us this season," says Cozzetto.
As a redshirt freshman last season McDonald showed flashes of the brilliance that earned him all-American distinction in high school. McDonald's five-yard touchdown reception versus Washington State proved top be one of the biggest of the season as it put the Sun Devils up for good on the eventual Pac-10 Champion Cougars.
Also battling for playing time in the spring will be redshirt freshmen Clifton Jones and John Kashner and sophomores Mike Aguirre and Aaron Dumsch.
Arriving this fall will be freshmen Justin Taplin, a former high school all-America from Tempe and Joey Graves from Casa Grande, Ariz.
Arizona State returns a talented group at tight end in 1998, each one possessing the ability to block well and to catch the football when called upon.
"We have great plans for what we are going to do with the tight end position this year," says Cozzetto.
Leading the talented group into spring football will be junior Kendrick Bates.
"Kendrick has tremendous blocking ability and has really improved in his ability to run good patterns for us and catch the football," says position coach Dick Arbuckle.
Last year Bates led all ASU tight ends with 23 receptions for 320 yards and one touchdown.
Battling Bates for playing time will be Matt Cercone, a 6-5, 254-pound senior from Bakersfield, Calif.
"Matt really came on for us in the latter part of the season and did some good things last year," says Arbuckle.
During the regular season, Cercone showed Steve Bush-like statistics will all of his eight receptions either being good for a first down or touchdown.
Sophomore Jason Moore, a Horizon High product, is getting a chance to show his abilities this spring.
Also in the playing mix will be junior Brian Jennings, another local product from Mesa.
Jennings played in 10 games last year and gave the tight end position great depth.
"Brian still has some work to do as far as running better routes and catching the football and that is mostly due to a lack of reps," says Arbuckle. "I think he will be able to do more for us this year now that he has gained more experience.
Jennings also handled some of the long-snapping chores for the Devils last year.
Arriving in the fall will be 6-5, 220-pound Todd Heap, who, like Jennings, also hails from Mesa.
Heap was named the 4A-5A Big School Player of the Year by the Arizona Republic.
Also enrolling at ASU this fall will be 6-4, 235-pound Aaron Winterswyk, who was named a high school all-America by SuperPrep and Prep Star Magazines.
The offensive tackle slots will feature the continuing progress of one student-athlete and having an old-fashioned battle on the other side.
On the left side sophomore Marvel Smith is an honors candidate. After proving his mettle last year as a redshirt freshman, Smith will be looked to as one of the anchors of the Devils' line in '98.
"Marvel is probably one of the finest athletes I have been around," says Cozzetto. "If he continues to work and do the things we ask him then he is going to be as good as there is."
Entering the spring, Cozzetto says the one weak link may be finding a suitable backup for Smith.
"I will be taking a close look at Ken Westerhaus and Craig Sweasy for the backup role," says Cozzetto.
Westerhaus, a junior out of Phoenix, saw limited action last season, playing in ASU's victory over Washington State. He was moved to the offensive line last year after playing on the defensive line in the spring of '96.
Sweasy, like Westerhaus, saw limited action last season as well. The sophomore from Atascadero, Calif., is known for his toughness on the field.
Right tackle will be a very interesting position to watch. Battling there will be senior Troy Davis , junior Thomas Schmidt and sophomore Dane Beem.
"That is going to be a heated battle watching those three guys go at it for the starting role," says Cozzetto.
Davis started the first three games of '97 at right tackle before being moved to the left side to back up Smith.
Schmidt saw limited action and contributed on special teams last season. However, with increased size and experience he has emerged as one of the Devils' best up-and-coming linemen.
Enrolling at ASU in the fall will be 6-5, 290-pound Damien Niko who was an honorable-mention all-America selection by USA Today and Adam "Big Country" Williams of Garland, Texas. Also arriving this fall will be freshman Ralph Zarate out of Tucson High School in Tucson. Zarate was selected to the 1996 Parade Magazine all-America team.
One of the challenges faced by the offensive line this year will be compensating for the loss of Kyle Murphy, who was a First-Team All-Pac-10 selection in 1997.
There is no shortage of talent waiting in the wings. However, a bit of fine tuning will be needed before anyone is able to step up to the level which Murphy performed while at ASU.
Entering the spring, Cozzetto has sophomore Victor Leyva and redshirt freshman Scott Peters starting at right and left guard, respectively.
At right guard, Leyva already has a firm hold on the position after performing admirably as a redshirt freshman last year. Voted a First Team Freshman all-America by the Sporting News, Leyva used his 6-4, 289-pound body to muscle defenders out of the way of Sun Devil ballcarriers.
The main concern at the right guard position is finding a capable backup.
Currently penciled in behind Leyva is junior Kaleb Ramsay, who saw limited action at right guard behind Leyva and Mike Barnes last year.
On the left side of the line the coaching staff has high expectations for Peters, who is coming off his redshirt year and appears to be ready.
"I think he has great potential," says Cozetto. "The only thing now is getting him into the game and seeing what he can do and then work on it from there."
Currently slated to backup the 6-3, 321-pound Pleasanton, Calif., product are sophomore Craig Sweasy, junior Jeff Johannesen, and sophomore Korey Ramsay.
"Sweasy has developed a little bit more at left guard to the point where I think he can really help us now," says Cozzetto.
Johannsen, who also serves as ASU's long snapper, and Ramsay both saw limited action at left guard last year.
Entering spring practice the Sun Devils are stockpiled with experienced centers.
Leading the Devils at the position is returning First-Team Pac-10 selection and preseason all-America candidate Grey Ruegamer, a player Snyder says may be the best center in the country.
"Grey is an individual who has a burning desire to succeed and loves to play the game," says Cozzetto. "He has great athleticism and is always out there working as hard as he can."
Last year Ruegamer made the transition from left tackle to center and did a remarkable job in starting the last four games.
Versatility has proven to be one of the strengths of Ruegamer, having played - and played well - at center and right and left tackle.
Behind Ruegamer will be two more experienced centers in the form of Randy Leaphart and Brian Williams.
Leaphart saw a decent amount of playing time last year, including playing the entire game in ASU's victory over Miami.
Cozzeto says his center of the future may lie in his starting left guard Scott Peters.
It has often been said that something good is not worth having unless it requires hard work. The job that defensive coordinator Phil Snow has done the past two years embodies those words.
After coaching the Devils defense to the top of the Pac-10 in 1996, Snow followed with the third-best unit in the conference, despite losing six starters off the '96 squad.
This season Snow loses six starters on a defensive squad that led the conference in scoring defense last year. Sound familiar?
"We really don't know what to expect this year because there are some pieces that are not yet in place," says Snow. "The thing I like about these guys is that they can run, but they are really young."
The biggest question marks for the Sun Devils lie in the defensive line and the defensive secondary, specifically the strong safety position where ASU must compensate for the loss of Damien Richardson. And of course how will the team fill the hole that exists after losing "Mr. Everything," linebacker Pat Tillman.
Snyder shares these same concerns. However, he feels optimistic about how his defense will perform this year.
"They (media) said the same things about us last year after losing six starters from our Rose Bowl team, yet we still put a very formidable squad on the field that ended up leading the conference in scoring defense," says Snyder. "I think finding the right chemistry will take some time, but I think once we do that we will be able to continue the success we have had over the past two years."
As established earlier, one of the defense's biggest concerns entering spring football is how will the defense compensate for the loss of Tillman. Not only that, but how will it account for replacing the leadership he brought every time he stepped onto the field.
"Those are certainly some big shoes to fill," says position coach Johnny Barr.
Barr feels the leading candidate to take over is Joe Cesta, a 6-1, 224-pound senior from Mission Viejo, Calif.
Cesta joined the squad last year as a junior college transfer and filled in behind Paul Reynolds at one of the inside linebacker positions.
Barr describes Cesta as a "very athletic player who acquitted himself very well last year."
As the season progressed, Cesta started playing more and more snaps. For the season, Cesta ended up with 24 combined tackles, including three for loss, one-half sack, one pass break up and one highlight-film interception versus Oregon.
At the other inside linebacker, redshirt freshman Eric Fields is on deck to take over for Reynolds.
"I think Eric has shown the initiative and poise necessary to assume the starting role," says Barr.
Fields entered ASU as a highly-touted recruit out of Las Vegas, Nev., who was a member of the USA Today all-state team.
Also expected to compete for the starting job is redshirt freshman Cody Price, who is currently sidelined due to injury.
At the outside position, Snow faces a predicament of sorts with having two experienced performers in the form of sophomore Stephen Trejo and senior Larry Johnson.
"Both players have talent and have the ability to make big plays," says Snow. "I would like to try having both players on the field whenever possible because of the amount of experience they have."
Trejo played a significant role last year, subbing in and out of games and making the most of his time when he was in. For the year, Trejo posted 22 tackles, one interception and two forced fumbles in 10 games, five of which he started.
Listed behind Trejo on the two-deep for spring is sophomore Adam Archuleta who, participated in 11 games for the Devils last year.
Archuleta brings superb athletic skills to the table as well as a great deal of knowledge. Last season Archuleta appeared in all 11 games and posted 15 tackles.
Johnson has been Mr. Consistency during his Sun Devil career. Filling in whenever and wherever asked, Johnson authored a season that included 39 tackles, eight of which were for loss, three sacks, two interceptions, two pass deflections and one recovered fumble.
Junior Terrelle Smith has moved to the "Sam" linebacker from rush end in 1998. Smith was a highly-regarded recruit from the 1996 recruiting class. He has great size and 6-1, 247-pounds.
A walkon at the linebacker position is Anthony Stevenson of Chandler, Ariz.
Joining the unit in the fall will be recruit Mason Unck of Ogden, Utah.
Filling the vacated strong safety position left by the graduation of Richardson will not be an easy task for Snow.
At the top of the depth chart for spring football is sophomore Christon Rance, a player who Snow lauds as "very capable with great athletic ability."
Rance got in a fair amount of playing time last year, subbing for Richardson during games and also appearing on special teams.
All told, Rance collected seven tackles and forced one fumble.
Backing up Rance on the spring depth chart is Kyion Grayes, who brings good size (6-0, 185) to the position.
At free safety Snow feels that junior Phillip Brown has shown the maturity that will enable him to handle the starting free safety duties during spring football.
Brown spent time adapting to the system last year, appearing in nine games and registering six tackles and one pass deflection.
"I think Phillip understands the maturity and dedication it takes to play at this level and I feel confident that he will be up to the challenge," says Snow.
Backing up Brown is redshirt freshman Courtney Palmore, a 5-11, 190-pound Oxnard, Calif., product who earned all-sectional and all-Ventura County recognition by the Los Angeles Times in 1996.
Expected to join the team in the fall is senior Mitchell "Fright Night" Freedman, the most feared hitter in the conference and perhaps in the nation. Last season Freedman solidified his place as one of the top free safeties in the Pac-10, authoring a season that included 58 tackles, four interceptions and three sacks.
"I think Mitchell will be an important part of the defense because of the experience and competitive attitude he exudes every time out," says Snyder. "His leadership will help in the secondary."
Also seeking playing time at safety is walkon Pete Rotkis of Lancaster, Ohio.
Joining the secondary this fall, perhaps at safety, will be Alfred Williams of Irvine, Calif.
One of the most important elements of ASU's defense over the past two years has been the play of its corners. The ability of the corners to play man on man coverage has enabled other defenders to come up and stop the run and put even more pressure on the passer.
"I think that our corners will be up to the task this year," says Snow.
Entering the '98 season as one of the top corners in the Pac-10 is junior Courtney Jackson, who started all 11 games for the Devils last year.
"Courtney has made great strides over the last two seasons," says Snow.
Jackson and Jason Simmons gave ASU one of the top tandems in the league last year. For the year Jackson recorded 27 tackles, 11 pass deflections and one interception. Jackson's play earned him honorable mention notice from the Pac-10.
Jackson's partner this year will be junior J'Juan Cherry, who Snow describes as a "smart football player with great speed and great cover ability."
Cherry, like Jackson, possesses the size to (6-0, 205) to cover the bigger and taller receivers.
Though he only started one game last season, Cherry was still able to post 25 tackles, five pass deflections and one critical interception that preserved ASU's 13-10 victory over Oregon State.
There are many potential candidates to spell Jackson and Cherry during the season.
Among them is redshirt freshman Courtney Hysaw, who possesses great athletic skills and great speed. Hysaw was a SuperPrep all-America coming out of high school and the coaching staff is high on him as he comes off his redshirt year.
Also expected to contend for playing time are juniors Kareem Clark, who has appeared in 19 games over the last two seasons, and Andre Smith, who appeared primarily on special teams last season and junior Jamel Ready, who played sparingly last year. Redshirt freshman James Dunn also appears ready to challenge for time on the field.
Joining the squad in the fall will be freshmen Willie Daniel and Brandon Falkner. Daniel and Falkner are both local products coming from Phoenix St. Mary's and Peoria High School, respectively.
Both Daniel and Falkner were named all-Americas by SuperPrep magazine as seniors in high school.
The rush tackle position, like the rush end position, is one of the biggest question marks as the Devils head into spring football.
The squad returns only one starter -Albrey Battle - off last year's team that was ranked fourth in the conference in rush defense.
Position coach Kevin Wolthausen says that even though losing players on the defensive line to graduation is not new, the circumstances this time around are different.
"We lost starters from the '96 squad as well, only in that case we had guys who still had plenty of game experience that were not listed as returning starters."
Wolthhausen cites the specific cases of Battle and Jeremy Staat, who both received a good deal of playing time in '96 and were able to come in and make an imediate impact in '97.
This year is just the opposite. Battle is the only player with a great deal of playing experience.
"I feel confident about Albrey," says Wolthausen. "He had some injury issues the last part of the season that set him back a little, but nonetheless we are excited about his potential."
The other rush tackle is junior Ryan Reilly, who still needs more experience before he can be a real force. Last season Reilly appeared in 10 games and recorded 12 tackles and one forced fumble.
"Ryan is a guy who has probably made the most improvement from where he was to where he is now than any other player we have," says Wolthausen.
Backing up Battle at the left rush tackle will be sophomore Ché Britton. Last season the 6-1, 251-pound Britton posted 10 tackles, including two for loss.
"Ché has got a lot of athletic ability, but like so many of the guys we have he just needs to get more reps and more experience," says Wolthausen.
Also adding depth on the left side will be senior Jonathan Roloff, a local product from Chandler. Redshirt freshman walkon Elza Gennicks could also see action.
On the right side, the coaching staff has really high hopes for junior college transfer Jawell Samilton.
The 6-4, 290-pound transfer from Los Angeles Southwest College, earned all-State honors on defense in Region II from the Junior College Athletic Bureau/California Community College Coaches Association.
Also in the mix will be redshirt freshman Patrick Staar from Cave Creek, Ariz., and incoming freshman James Beal of DeSoto (HS), Texas, the same high school that produced ASU corner Courtney Jackson. Highly-regarded Mike Pinkard, a high school all-America from Thornton, Colo., arrives this fall as does Ryan Ransom-Pittinger, a line prospect from Long Beach (Calif.) Wilson High School.
Though he did not start any games last season, sophomore Quincy Yancy returns as one of the top rush ends on a squad that has been depleted by graduation.
Yancy, who plays the strong-side rush end position, possesses good quicknes and a good measure of strength that is needed on the strong side because of a tight end that usually lines up opposite the strong side position.
"Quincy has all the tools to succeed, it is just a matter of him gaining strength, weight, maturity and experieince," says Wolthausen.
Yancy gained valuable experience last year playing anywhere between 15-40 snaps a game behind Vince Amey. For the year, Yancy was in on nine tackles.
On the other side of the line is senior Derrick Ford, who has been in the program four years.
"Derrick has been around a while and has learned a lot in that time," says Wolthausen. "I think he may be a pleasant surprise for the team this season."
Trying to find depth is foremost on Wolthausen's agenda for spring football.
"Depth has to be developed and there is no one with a great deal of experience playing right now," says Wolthausen.
On the strong side, redshirt freshman Levi Jones (6-4, 267), and junior Leroy Hawkins will battle for playing time in the spring.
On the opposite side, it will be redshirt frehman Kyle Kosier and senior Seanan Kelly competing for playing time.
The coaching staff is eagerly awaitng the fall arrival of junior college transfers Erik Flowers and Junior Ioane.
"We think Flowers and Ioane have the potential to be all-Americans," says Wolthausen.
Flowers enters ASU as one of the most coveted defensive linemen to come out of junior college this year. As a member of Trinity Junior College in Athens, Texas, Flowers was a menace to opposing quarterbacks, sacking them 15 times to go along with 97 tackles, two fumble recoveries, one interception and numerous quarterback hurries.
Ioane played his junior college ball at Snow College in Utah. Last season Ioane tallied 30 solo tackles, 21 assists and 11 quarterback sacks.
After having been spoiled by the likes of Robert Nycz and Marcus Williams the past two year, the Devils must once again look for capable players to fill the cleats of Nycz and Williams.
"We were very fortunate to have Robert and Marcus here the past couple of years," says Snyder. "Having a kicker that can get you three points at any time and having a punter who can place the ball inside the 20 when given the opportunity can make the difference between winning and losing."
The leading candidates for both jobs are redshirt freshmen Stephen Baker, whose older brother Jon was a former ASU placekicker, and Mike Gauthier. Also in the mix is walkon Josh Nicassio, a sophomore from Oak Park, Calif.
"I would think that Stephen has the edge in the punting department right now," says position coach Dick Arbuckle. "As far as placekicking is concerned, we are going to have to take a closer look at both of them in the spring and see how they kick under various conditions. Both are Pac-10 caliber kickers, but both need lots of experience as well."
Success has never come easy for teams dwelling in the Pacific -10 Conference and 1998 will be no different.
In addition to the Sun Devils, the conference sent five teams -four of which ASU plays in 1998 - bowling last year.
ASU opens the campaign with two teams - Washington and Brigham Young - that defeated the Sun Devils last year.
The home portion is highlighted by contests with familiar Pac-10 foes, including a Sept. 5 duel in the desert with Washington in the season-opener for both squads.
The tradition-rich Fighting Irish from Notre Dame will be visiting Tempe for their first-ever meeting with the Sun Devils.
Also visiting Frank Kush Field this season will be Pac-10 rivals Oregon State, Stanford and California. Non-conference foe North Texas will make its second trip to the Valley in the last three years.
On the road the Devils will encounter USC , who ASU has defeated the last two years in Tempe.
The season's second week sees the Devils in Provo, Utah for a Sept. 12 meeting with BYU.
ASU will also visit Pullman, Wash., for a Halloween meeting with defending Pac-10 Champion Washington State and will close the season with back-to-back road contests at Oregon and Arizona.