Holiday Bowl previewing continues with a look at the battle in the trenches.
This actually presents an interesting coaching battle worth keeping an eye on. Dennis Erickson's coached a lot of football games at various levesl of football, making him more likely than some to tinker with his shiniest toy to exploit any perceived weaknesses. Ulatoski hasn't been a world-beater himself, but one has to think Erickson would like to line Dexter Davis up against whichever inexperienced tackle Mack Brown decides to start. What will be interesting to watch is: (1) where Brown starts Ulatoski, and (2) whether that affects how Erickson deploys his explosive defensive end. Collegiate coaches don't generally move ends around liberally, but Erickson's a sly old man; if he thinks there's a tackle to be exploited with his gifted DE, he's more likely than most to shuffle things up.
Beyond Dexter Davis, the ASU defensive line is solid-not-great. With Dallas Griffin also out for the year, sophomore Buck Burnette gets the start at center for Texas, making the most probable starting lineup for the 'Horns (in my opinion):
LT: Adam Ulatoski
LG: Chris Hall
C: Buck Burnette
RG: Cedric Dockery
RT: Kyle Hix
The alternative is to start Tray Allen at LT and keep Ulatoski on the right side, but I think Hix is further along in his development at this point and has been playing on the right side. I'm guessing the coaches will ask Ulatoski to move over to the left side, allowing Hix to start where he's been playing.
Texas wound up giving significant playing time to ten players on the defensive line in 2007, in part because they possess solid depth, but also because there were numerous injuries.
2007 was a solid season for Texas' defensive ends. Lamarr Houston, in particular, made it clear he's a star in the making. Best of all, each of Texas' top six at the position return in 2008. Houston's a sophomore, Jones is a redshirt freshman, Acho is a true freshman, while Orakpo, Lewis, and Melton are juniors.
As for the tackles, the situation is far less stable. Both Okam and Lokey graduate after very solid Texas careers, and both should find homes in the NFL, if they want them. Roy Miller will be back for his senior season, but Thomas Marshall graduates as a fifth year senior. In all likelihood, that means sophomore Ben Alexander starts along Miller in 2008. Beyond Miller and Alexander, the coaches will work hard to get one or two among Brian Ellis, Tyrell Higgins, and Michael Wilcoxon ready to contribute. Given how much weight and strength Higgins and Wilcoxon still need to add, that may be a stretch. Don't be shocked if Melton or Lewis is asked to move in to tackle for 2008.
Arizona State's offensive line had a tough time in 2007, giving up an astounding 50 sacks on the season. Only Syracuse (54) and Notre Dame (58) allowed more in 2007. Center Mike Pollak was named to the First Team All Pac-10 Team, while guard Paul Fanaika and tackle Brandon Rodd each earned honorable mention. Collectively, though, this group struggled. Along with the sketchy pass protection, the Sun Devils managed just 3.37 yards per rush attempt on the season, 100th worst in the nation. Ask an Arizona State fan what they fear about this game and they'll all say cite the same concern - their offensive line.
The good news for ASU is that Duane Akina did a lousy job pressuring the quarterback this season. Despite sounding obsessed with pressuring the opposition's passer, Akina's schemes failed in accomplishing that goal. Texas' defense only picked up 24 sacks on the season while allowing a school record number of pass yards. As linebackers blindly blitzed into piles of linemen, defensive ends were forced to run contain, hampering their pass rush.
For all the defensive struggles in 2006, that unit was decidedly better than this 2007 group. They picked up 39 sacks and were better against the run. Though the personnel in last year's secondary was better, a side-by-side look at the front seven of last year's and this year's team shows a superior group of players for Akina to work with. Though Tim Crowder and Brian Robison were high-caliber ends, Robison, Okam, and Lokey all were sidelined by or played through injuries in '06. Akina had a stronger group of linebackers to work with, but he stuck with the more veteran, less impactful players for far too long.