Arizona State kicker Thomas Weber was out with an injury for most of the 2009 season, and the Sun Devils lost several close games. ASU hopes sophomore quarterback Brock Osweiler can help an offense that has struggled.

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Skeptics of Arizona State football will note a telltale sign about what’s got the Sun Devils optimistic for 2010:

They’re excited the kicker is back.

Tough to run a marketing campaign around field goals, but we might want to hear out ASU’s case that the media forecast for ninth place in the Pac-10 is out to lunch.

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The Sun Devils finished 4-8 in 2009, marking the first time in Dennis Erickson’s 20-year tenure as a college coach he has had back-to-back losing seasons.

ASU had four losses of five or fewer points, so it can be argued that the absence of 2007 Groza Award winner Thomas Weber for much of the season with a groin injury had a serious impact not only on the Sun Devils’ fate, but how they might be perceived for 2010.

“It shows you what happens when you don’t have a kicker,” says Erickson. “You don’t realize how valuable they are until you don’t have one.”

Weber is back for his senior year, and if he’s anything like he was early in his career, ASU has that part of its game buttoned up. He made 24 of 25 field-goal attempts in 2007 as a redshirt freshman.

A closer look at the Sun Devils suggests they have more than a kicker to build around, and if they can fix what’s ailed them on offense in recent years, appear worthy of the Pac-10’s first division.

They led the conference in defense a year ago at 297.6 yards a game, and Erickson said this year’s edition has a chance to rank with any defenses he trotted out at Miami from 1989 to 1994, when he went 63-9.

“The speed of our defense is incredible,” says Erickson, referring to a unit led by tackle Lawrence Guy and sophomore linebacker Vontaze Burfict.

It’s the offense that’s mostly been a mess the past three years. In 2007, ASU allowed 55 sacks. The next two years, it was seventh and ninth in Pac-10 total offense. The offensive line has been spotty and injured, and the quarterback play has been sporadic.

So that’s where the onus lies this season.

“It’s up to us as to how good we want this football team to be,” said sophomore quarterback Brock Osweiler. “A lot of that falls on the quarterback position, and I’m OK with that.”

Erickson imported a new coordinator, 53-year-old Noel Mazzone, a running backs coach under Erickson at Oregon State in 2002. He was most recently with the New York Jets.

“You’re going to see a completely different football team out there,” Osweiler says. “No-huddle, fast-paced, a lot of motion, a lot of quick throws.”

The throws won’t be going to a wealth of experienced receivers, as ASU lost its top three from a year ago. But, says Erickson, “Our skill people are better than what we had the first couple of years.”

The most provocative competitive derby is between Osweiler and Michigan junior transfer Steven Threet, who started eight games for the Wolverines and compiled modest numbers for a team that went 3-9 in Rich Rodriguez’s first season. And oft-injured Samson Szakacsy has made a run at the job in fall camp.

Still, it seems apparent Osweiler represents the future.

“He’s probably as talented as I’ve had at that position,” said Erickson.

In 2006, Osweiler, of Kalispell, Mont., became Gonzaga’s earliest committed basketball recruit, accepting a scholarship offer just after his freshman season of high school. But in 2008, he switched schools — and sports.

“I never completely ruled football out of the picture,” said the 6-foot-8, 245-pound Osweiler. “One day (late in his junior year), I was sitting in class, and the next thing I know, I thought, ‘I want to play football.’ “

One recent day, Erickson was mulling over the competitive nature of the Pac-10, which last year saw its most contentious race in history.

“In this league, I couldn’t tell you who’s going to win,” he said, adding that an experienced quarterback can be a difference-maker.

“In saying that,” he continued, “you’d better be good on defense. If you can do that and move it, that’s who’s going to end up winning it.”

Arizona State looks to have half that formula in place, maybe more.

Wednesday: Arizona

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or

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