Few knew what to expect when Sam Keller made his first start at quarterback for the Sun Devils against Purdue in the Sun Bowl last December. A sophomore, he had looked good in relief of the injured Andrew Walter during the fourth quarter of the Sun Devils' final regular-season game, a 34-27 loss to Arizona. But his only other experience in two years had been in mop-up duty behind Walter, a three-year starter who finished his career as the school's alltime passing leader. To the relief of the Arizona State faithful, however, Keller came through with a breakout performance in El Paso, throwing for 370 yards and three touchdowns in a 27-23 win to earn Sun Bowl MVP honors. "I actually wasn't too surprised," says coach Dirk Koetter. "We'd seen him do stuff like that in practice."
This year Keller will be the leader of what should be one of the country's most potent aerial attacks. Last year the Sun Devils ranked fifth in the nation in passing offense (317.3 yards per game) and scored 35 of their 41 touchdowns through the air. Essential to that performance were four wideouts, all of whom return this fall. Tops among them is All-America candidate Derek Hagan, a 6'2'', 202-pound senior who caught 83 passes for 1,248 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2004. Also running routes will be tight end Zach Miller, the Pac-10 Freshman of the Year in '04 and the team's second leading receiver, with 56 catches and six touchdowns. There should be ample time for Keller to find all those targets downfield, as the offensive line, led by All-Pac-10 senior center Grayling Love, is deep and experienced. "Our offense hasn't changed at all," says Love, "just the person making the calls."
If there's an area in which the offense could use some help, it's the running game. Arizona State doesn't have one running back left who scored a rushing touchdown last season. Starting duties will fall to 5'11", 181-pound sophomore Rudy Burgess, a former receiver who rushed for 404 yards last year. While Koetter is eager to find more depth, his players know that grinding out games isn't Arizona State's style. "I love running the ball well, but we're a great passing offense," says Love. "Why fix something that isn't broken?"
Putting the ball in the air this season is just fine with Keller, who's eager to get started. "This has the makings of a special team," says Keller, who'll be a more emotional presence in the huddle than his predecessor. "Coach K's offense is your best friend, and the guys know I can play now. I just want to be the one who makes things happen." --M.B.
2004 RECORD 9-3 (5-3, T3 in Pac-10)
FINAL AP RANK 19 RETURNING STARTERS 15
KEY RETURNEES (2004 stats)
WR Derek Hagan (Sr.)
At least one catch in 29 straight games
TE Zach Miller (Soph.)
Second Sun Devil to be top Pac-10 freshman
LB Jamar Williams (Sr.)
Averaged 6.8 tackles per game
C Grayling Love (Sr.)
First-team All-Pac-10 on field and in class
117 National rank in rushing touchdowns (last) for the Sun Devils, who had six. No other team with a winning record had fewer than 10 TD runs.
Middle linebacker Dale Robinson is nicknamed Manimal for a reason. The 6'1", 236-pound senior is one of the hardest hitters in the Pac-10. Robinson, who moves to the middle from the strong side this fall, ranked second on the Sun Devils with 93 tackles (13 for loss), plus 4 1/2 sacks and an interception.
10 at LSU
24 at Oregon State
8 OREGON 22 at Stanford
5 at Washington State
12 at UCLA
AMY BETH BENNETT/AP
Keller's take-charge bowl performance reassured the Tempe faithful.