ASU Football: The best offensive trios in Sun Devil history

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On Wednesday, ESPN’s Pac-12 editor Ted Miller published his list of the top “three-headed monster” offensive combinations. Miller ranked the top quarterback-running back-wide receiver/tight end trios in the conference, and Arizona State’s Taylor Kelly, Marion Grice and Chris Coyle were listed as the Pac-12’s second-most potent grouping, behind only that of Oregon’s Marcus Mariota, De’Anthony Thomas and Josh Huff (and rightfully so).

That got us at Speak of the Devils thinking.

While the Kelly-Grice-Coyle trio certainly was terrific in 2012, they do have a ways to go in reaching the level of some of ASU’s all-time best.

But what trios top the list? We have the answers.

1) QB Jake Plummer, RB Terry Battle, WR Keith Poole

One of the most memorable teams in Arizona State history, the 1996 Sun Devils likely would not have made its Rose Bowl run without the dynamic offensive attack featuring QB Jake Plummer, RB Terry Battle and WR Keith Poole.

A starter since midway through his true freshman season, Plummer ended his college career on a level few quarterbacks in school history have matched.  As a senior, Plummer threw for 2,778 yards with 24 touchdowns, which at the time stood as the second-highest single-season totals in ASU history.

Wily and gutsy, “The Snake” captured First-Team All-America honors, was named the Pac-10 Conference’s Offensive Player of the Year and finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting after leading ASU to a perfect 11-0 regular season and the program’s second Rose Bowl berth.

Plummer’s legendary senior season enabled him to leave Tempe as the school’s all-time leader in passing yards and touchdown throws.

Battle began the season as part of a backfield platoon, but after a season-ending injury to Michael Martin he exploded to become one of the nation’s premier runners and kick returners. 

In all, Battle rushed for 1,077 yards and tied the ASU single-season rushing touchdowns mark with 18 while adding two more on kickoff returns. He also earned First-Team All-America accolades by Sporting News and was tabbed as a First-Team All-Pac-10 member.

ASU’s leading receiver with 47 catches for 967 yards with 11 touchdown receptions, Poole was named a Second-Team All-American by the Associated Press and joined Plummer and Battle as First-Team All-Pac-10 honorees.

Poole finished his ASU career tied for first all-time in school history in touchdown receptions (25) and ranked fourth in career catches (140).

2) QB Danny White, RB Woody Green, WR Steve Holden

All that we have here is ASU’s all-time leading passer at the time of his departure, the current leader in career rushing yards, arguably the most electric player in school history, all for teams that comprised the peak of ASU’s Golden Era under Frank Kush.

Is that all?

Danny White was a three-year starter who posted an astounding 32-4 record as a starter, and ended his Sun Devil career with then-records of 6,717 passing yards and 64 touchdowns. He is only one of four players in Sun Devil history to have his number retired.

Woody Green still holds every meaningful rushing record in school history four decades after his final carry as a Sun Devil, and his 4,188 yards and 43 scores are unlikely to ever be touched. 

Rounding out group is Steve Holden, the dynamic playmaker who did it all as a wide receiver, runner and punt returner who would go on to be a first round pick of the Cleveland Browns in 1973.

3) QB Jeff Van Raaphorst, RB Darryl Harris, WR Aaron Cox

In a list this difficult to make, having a Rose Bowl win on your resume helps, and this trio is the only group that can make that claim.

During his final of three seasons as starter, Van Raaphorst guided his team to the program's lone Rose Bowl title. Over his career, he threw for 6,610 yards and 44 touchdowns, and set records (since broken) in career attempts (868) and single-game passing yards (532).

Harris took over as the lead back during that fateful season and topped 1,000 yards and scored nine touchdowns during his All-Pac-12 second team campaign. His 2,617 career yards are 10th-best in ASU history. 

Aaron Cox earned the first of his two career first team All-Pac12 selections, as he led the team with 35 catches and 695 yards as Van Raaphorst's go-to man.

4) QB Joe Spagnola, RB Bob Thomas, WR J.D. Hill

As a decade, the 1970’s undoubtedly stand as the most prominent and dominant era Sun Devil football has ever witnessed and the first year of that decade set a distinct tone for the years to come. 

That season, ASU enjoyed a perfect 10-0 regular season record, a Western Athletic Conference (WAC) championship and most importantly, the program’s first postseason berth in 20 years. The 1970 season also resulted in ASU’s first final season top-10 ranking in program history as the Devils finished ranked sixth in the country by the Associated Press. 

The driving offensive force of Frank Kush’s first bowl-bound squad was the trio consisting of QB Joe Spagnola, FB Bob Thomas and WR J.D. Hill.  Collectively, the 1970 Sun Devils posted the first offense—and one of only four all-time at ASU—to include a rusher and receiver each to have eclipsed 1,000-yards in the same season.

Hill was the headline-grabber of the group with his sensational receiving seasons, setting school records in receptions (61), yards (1,009) and touchdown catches (11) and in all he scored 15 total touchdowns.  

The first 1,000-yard receiver in Sun Devil history, Hill earned First-Team All-America honors by Sporting News and Time and was also a First-Team All-WAC member. A former three-sport athlete at ASU, Hill’s 1970 effort came after sitting out the previous season to focus on academics. Hill was able to parlay his outstanding senior season into a top draft ranking as he was selected fourth overall in the 1971 NFL Draft by the Buffalo Bills. 

Though his name typically isn’t mentioned among the all-time great Sun Devil quarterbacks such as Danny White and Jake Plummer, Spagnola was nothing short of a bona fide winner during his time in Tempe.  As ASU’s starter from 1968-70, Spagnola posted a 25-3 career record—including 17 straight to end his career—and played a notable role in creating the foundation for success that the Sun Devil football program would continue throughout 1970s. 

A team captain in 1970, “Spaghetti Joe” became only the second passer in school history to throw for over 2,000 yards (2,146) and his 19 touchdown passes at the time stood as the second-greatest single-season total at ASU. Spagnola was also First-Team All-WAC selection in 1970, just as he was the season before. 

Thomas only played the one season at ASU but made it a memorable one, as he rushed for 1,024 yards from his fullback spot and nabbed Second-Team All-WAC postseason accolades.  In ASU’s Peach Bowl victory over North Carolina, Thomas’ three rushing scores helped push the Devils to a 48-26 win.

5) QB Brock Osweiler, RB Cameron Marshall, WR Gerell Robinson

While the other groups on this list had great team success, this trio played for a team that fell well short of expectations, but it certainly was not their fault.

The 2011 season was Osweiler's first as a starter, and he made the most of it. He set single-season records for attempts (516), completions (326), completion precentage (.618, broken by Kelly last year), and became the first and only Sun Devil to top 4,000 yards passing.

A big reason for Osweiler's success was the emergence of Gerell Robinson as his No. 1 target. He caught 10 or more passes in six of the last eight games, and finished with 77 catches and his 1,397 yards are the second-highest single-season total in ASU history.

The offense was just as dominant on the ground, thanks to Marshall. He became the first Sun Devil back to top 1,000 yards in a season since 2006, and he tied Green and Battle's single-season rushing touchdown with 18 scores.