Sun Devil Six Pack: ASU offensive line preview

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By Christian Petersen By Christian Petersen

TEMPE, Ariz. -- It all starts up front.

Arizona State has one of the conference's better quarterbacks in Taylor Kelly. They have arguably the best running back duo in the nation in Marion Grice and D.J. Foster, and a record-setting tight end in Chris Coyle. A flock of new and talented wide receivers have hopes running high that the team's passing game will become even more dangerous.

But that all hinges on the big boys up front.

ASU loses two starters from last year, but return three talented players who could each have All-Pac-12 potential. With new position coach Chris Thomsen now in charge, the unit will look to build upon a promising, but far from perfect, 2012 season.

We preview the outlook for the Sun Devil offensive line with six key areas to watch in 2013.

1) Look to the left

Taylor Kelly has to feel confident in his blind side.

At tackle, Evan Finkenberg returns for his final season with 34 starts on his career resume, making him one of the more experienced players in the nation. The steady 6-foot-4, 300 pounder has quietly had an excellent career. A steady player in both run and pass blocking, Finkenberg very well could challenge for All-Pac-12 honors.

Next to Finkenberg at guard is Jamil Douglas, who started all 13 games at that spot in 2012. Douglas has often been projected to be best suited for tackle, and he exited spring practice as the team's new starter at right tackle. However, due to a combination of team need and the emergence of Tyler Sulka, Douglas now finds himself back at left guard.

At 6-foot-4, 303 pounds, Douglas may be the most talented offensive linemen on the roster. He has very good agility, technique, and tenacity, and he has increased his strength and power after an offseason of hard work in the weight room. While he may eventually slide out to tackle next year, he should prove to be one of the best interior linemen in the Pac-12 in 2013.

2) Pass protection needs improvement

The Sun Devil offense had a very productive season in 2012, and much of the credit goes to the offensive line. However, there was one area that stuck out in a bad way.

ASU ranked 102nd out of the 124 FBS teams in sacks allowed, giving up an average of 2.92 per game. That number is skewed to a degree, as 18 of the 36 sacks allowed by ASU came during the team's four-game losing streak during the middle of the year.

But those four games—against Oregon, UCLA, USC and Oregon State—share a common thread: They all came against top defenses. When the competition and pass rush was most fierce, the line struggled.

Now with two new starters on the line, the team must improve in that department. In addition to the stout defenses they will face within conference, ASU will face Notre Dame and Wisconsin, both of whom were in the top 15 in total defense a year ago.

3) Own the ground

While the unit struggle holding back the opposing pass rush last year, they had great success opening holes for the team's talented running backs. ASU rushed for 2,670 yards, the program's highest total since 1996, and they averaged 4.5 yards-per-carry as a team. 

They could be even better this year.

Even with two new starters, the unit includes all returning players who now have a full year in the program's rigorous strength and conditioning program, and each member of the current starting lineup is stronger and in top shape. In particular, new right tackle Tyler Sulka has added nearly 20 pounds over the offseason.

Beyond the size—all five starters are all at or near 300 pounds—the line has honed their technique, tenacity, and drive off the ball during camp. Barring injury, it's likely they will be paving the way for another 2,500 yards on the ground.

4) Will Sulka hold down the right side?

Heading into fall camp, Jamil Douglas was entrenched at right tackle with Sil Ajawara taking his place on the inside. The line seemed set.

However, Ajawara struggled early on, and Tyler Sulka, recently bulked up from last year, caught the staff's attention. They put Sulka in at right tackle and moved Douglas back to his old spot at left guard, and things have remained that way since. 

Sulka's play has earned the staff's praise, and arguably makes the line a more cohesive unit, with Douglas back on familiar ground. At 6-foot-5 and 290 pounds, Sulka has a natural build for tackle. Last year, his agility and technique helped him see time, including one start, as a blocking tight end.

Whether he can continue his success will be a critical factor for the Sun Devils this year. If he can, this group will continue to gel into one of the conference's best. If not, the staff will be forced into the kind of shuffling that is not conducive to success in the trenches.

5) Can Koebensky take the next step?

"I'd like to be at that level one day. I feel that there is a lot of pressure, and I'm just working hard every day to get to the level that they were at."

Kody Koebensky realizes that ASU has had a legacy of great centers, and since taking over the job last year, he has worked diligently to get to that level and carry on the tradition.

Now a senior, he's not far off.

Koebensky had a standout year in 2012, and he's now primed to challenge for all-conference honors. The 6-foot-3, 290-pound senior is now a better player than last year, and he's also grown into a leadership role that has often received praise from the coaching staff.

6) Depth is a major concern

With Finkenberg, Douglas, Koebensky, Sulka, and right guard Vi Teofilo, the Sun Devils have a potent group of starters at offensive line.

But then what?

The team appears best set at center, where newcomer Nick Kelly (6-foot-2, 296) has impressed coaches throughout spring and fall camp with his steady play. So good was Kelly that Mo Latu was moved back to defense from center.

At tackle, any hole there likely will be filled by Douglas, but top backups Evan Goodman and Stephon McCray have yet to show the consistency needed to see the field. Goodman, a 4-star prospect in last year's class, is in great need of stepping up his game. Ajawara, who started at left guard during the spring, would be the top man should a need arise on the inside.

Last year, ASU's line only lost three games due to injury (all by Andrew Sampson), and with the lingering question marks on the depth chart, another healthy year would go a long way towards realizing their Pac-12 South title hopes.