Is this the year for Dennis Erickson's Sun Devils?


Throughout a coaching career that has spanned more than four decades, Dennis Erickson has grown accustomed to winning.

In 22 years as a head college coach, Erickson has experienced five losing seasons.

Two of them came at Arizona State in 2008 and '09.

A 6-6 campaign in 2010 made it three straight seasons without a bowl appearance for the Sun Devils, leaving a good portion of their followers clamoring for the coach's head.

So there is a sense of urgency as Erickson, 64, prepares his troops for the start of training camp next Monday.

There is every reason to believe, however, that Arizona State is ready for a resurgence in Erickson's fifth season at the helm.

ASU has 19 returning starters - the most in the new Pac-12 - from the 2010 team that lost heartbreakers to Stanford (17-13), Southern Cal (34-33), Oregon State (31-28) and Wisconsin (20-19) and gave Oregon a scare before losing 42-31.

'We have a chance to be pretty good,' says Erickson, whose career record as a head college coach is 179-95-1. 'It's the best team I've had since I've been here.'

Erickson's first ASU team in 2007 got off to an 8-0 start against favorable competition before finishing 10-3. The next two years, the Devils went 5-7 and 4-8.

'I knew the second and third years would be tough,' says Erickson, whose four-year stint at Oregon State from 1999-2002 reaped a 31-17 record, including 11-1 during the Fiesta Bowl season of 2000. 'We lost a lot of players from that (2007) team. But we continued to recruit freshmen. Finally, it's paying off.

'We were a good team last year, but didn't finish. we lost a lot of close games. You have to learn how to win those. That's what Mike (Riley) has done at Oregon State over the years. This is the year we should be able to win some of the close ones.'

I'm picking Arizona State to win the South Division in the Pac-12's inaugural season, even without departed quarterback Steven Threet and defensive tackle Lawrence Guy, and with star cornerback Omar Bolden likely lost for the year following knee surgery.

Brock Osweiler stepped in for the injured Threet in the final two games last season, completing 49 of 85 passes for 647 yards and five TDs with no interceptions. The 6-8, 240-pound junior has a big arm and good feet to go with his LeBron James-like body.

'I look at Brock as having a chance as being as good as I've had,' says Erickson, who won national championships at Miami in 1989 and '91. 'He is athletic, runs a 4.7 40, is a very competitive guy and a real leader.

'He gives us another dimension. He made a lot of plays last year to help us beat Arizona (30-29) running the football. We haven't had a quarterback like that.'

Last year, tailback Cameron Marshall rushed for 787 yards (5.2 average) and nine TDs, while backup Deantre Lewis picked up 539 (5.9) with four scores. Marshall will be a junior this season, Lewis a sophomore.

'Marshall is special,' Erickson says. 'He's 225 pounds and can fly. He's very underrated in our league. We have to find a way to get him the ball more than we did last year.'

Four senior starters return on the offensive line.

'This will be by far the best offensive front I've had here,' Erickson says.

Almost everybody is back on defense, including end Junior Onyeali, the Pac-10 defensive freshman of the year last season, and 6-3, 250-pound junior middle linebacker Vontaze Burfict, whose physical skills have in the past been matched by his mental shortcomings.

'Over the spring and summer, Vontaze has become a real leader,' Erickson says. 'He understands what he can't do.

'I'm not going to say he's not going to have any penalties. Good defensive players get them sometimes. But he has matured. I look for him to have a big year for us.'

Erickson will find out quickly how good the Sun Devils are. After opening with Cal Davis, they play Missouri and at Illinois before opening the Pac-12 schedule at home against USC on Sept. 24. They play host to Oregon State on Oct. 1, then have road dates with Utah and Oregon.

'Anybody can win our division,' Erickson says. 'SC is loaded. The probation thing doesn't affect (the Trojans) for another year or two. Utah is good. UCLA is good. Our schedule is hard, but we have as good a chance as anybody.'

Erickson is in favor of the divisional format that offers a Pac-12 championship game.

'I like the idea of a playoff,' he says. 'Everybody is doing that around the country. It gives you something more to play for.

'Lose a couple of games early in the Pac-10 and you probably had no chance to get to the Rose Bowl. You have that opportunity now with the divisions and the championship game.'

With USC not eligible for the postseason, it's probably between Utah and Arizona State for the Pac-12 South Division crown. My nickel is on Erickson and the Sun Devils to face Oregon in the new league's title tilt.