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Originally published August 24, 2009 at 7:55 PM | Page modified August 24, 2009 at 9:29 PM

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Pac-10 Preview | Dennis Erickson confident competition makes Arizona State better

Sun Devils have improved offensive line and more depth overall.

Times college football reporter

Arizona State Sun Devils

Last season: 5-7 (4-5, T6th in Pac-10).

Coach: Dennis Erickson 163-75-1 (15-8 at ASU).

Leading lights: OT Shawn Lauvao, DE Dexter Davis, DT Lawrence Guy, LB Mike Nixon, P-PK Thomas Weber.

The schedule: The Sun Devils have a daunting game Sept. 26 at Georgia, and the league agenda is backloaded, with Cal, USC, Oregon and Arizona among the final five.

The series

Tuesday: USC

Wednesday: UCLA

Thursday: California

Friday: Stanford

Saturday: Oregon State

Sunday: Oregon

Monday: Arizona

> Today: Arizona State

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A year ago, Dennis Erickson divulged the game plan for his Arizona State football team: Wing it. The Sun Devils would get in five wides and throw quickly, much in the way Erickson's old teams at Idaho and Washington State did in the 1980s.

Well, scratch that.

"We couldn't block anybody," Erickson told me recently at Pac-10 media day. "We were going to get Rudy [Carpenter, the quarterback] killed."

This, then, is the 2009 blueprint for the Sun Devils: See 2008, before reality bit.

"I'm going to go back to what I used to do, spreadin' 'em out," Erickson vowed. "I think offensively we're going to be a lot better."

Indeed, it's a small miracle that ASU has won 15 games in Erickson's first two years. In 2008, the Sun Devils allowed 34 sacks — that made it 89 in two years — and rushed for only 89 yards per game, or 113th in the Football Bowl Subdivision.

If you're surmising that ASU has had offensive-line problems, bingo. Erickson inherited a shortfall of big uglies when he took over in 2007 for Dirk Koetter, whose recruiting classes affecting Erickson's teams included seven offensive linemen who either left or didn't qualify, including a 4-for-4 wipeout in 2004.

Now ASU coaches are feeling better about what's up front, and that should ease concerns about Carpenter's successor, 6-foot-4, 240-pound Danny Sullivan.

"We have a lot more competition than we've had before," said Erickson's longtime offensive-line coach, Gregg Smith. "Our young kids are rising up.

"Depth has been our biggest thing. We haven't had a lot of depth previously, so our competition hasn't been real good."

The stud up front is 6-3, 305-pound Shawn Lauvao, who has been moved to left tackle and is responding well in camp.

"We should have done it last year," Erickson said. "He's a hell of a player."

Erickson foresees more shotgun this year, and says Sullivan, a three-year backup, gets the ball out quicker than did Carpenter, who started 43 straight games as a Sun Devil.

Sullivan has reportedly been named the starter. Backup Samson Szakacsy has been battling a recurrence of elbow problems in camp. Meanwhile, Erickson is clearly high on 6-8, 237-pound true freshman Brock Osweiler.

Osweiler, who was at ASU for spring practice, is the prospect who committed to Gonzaga for basketball in 2006 after his freshman year of high school in Kalispell, Mont., then reversed himself and opted for football.

"Gonzaga doesn't have a football program; that helped," quipped Erickson. "We knew about him because of all my friends in Montana. We found out about him after his sophomore year.

"I think he's got a huge, huge future in football. He's got a gun on him. He's got a chance to be pretty special."

It's on defense, however, where ASU should ensure Erickson doesn't post the first back-to-back losing college seasons of his 21-year career. The most compelling figure there is senior end Dexter Davis, who has started every one of his 38 games at ASU and has 27 ½ sacks.

"We'll be pretty good on defense," said Erickson.

In particular, they will if ASU can get a favorable ruling from the NCAA clearinghouse on 6-3, 245-pound freshman linebacker Vontaze Burfict, who is practicing while he awaits it. His bio in the school press guide calls him "the highest-rated football prospect ever to sign a letter of intent with ASU."

"I haven't seen a guy like him in high school since Ray Lewis," said Erickson, who coached Lewis at Miami. "He's bigger than Ray."

Among the perks of that defense is one felt by the offense. Noting that his unit's pass-blocking needs to improve, Smith says, "We're getting pushed pretty good by our defense. That's helped us raise our competition level."

To which Erickson might add, better late than never.

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or bwithers@seattletimes.com

Copyright © The Seattle Times Company

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