Arizona State football coach Dennis Erickson, hoping to protect quarterback Rudy Carpenter from the 55 sacks he suffered last season, says his team will be passing quickly and using four-receiver sets.

Rudy Carpenter is a wear-it-on-his-sleeve kind of guy. To a fault, sometimes.

Last year, when he took the brunt of a school-record 55 sacks allowed by his Arizona State offensive front, Carpenter had to walk that fine line between exhorting and excoriating. There were times he crossed it.

One day, he threw a 60-yard touchdown pass and looked up to see a yellow flag being thrown against his right guard and good friend, Paul Fanaika.

“Just freaked out on him,” Carpenter said recently. “In the middle of the game, my helmet was off, in front of everybody.

“He didn’t talk to me for a week. I had to apologize to him.”

Dennis Erickson, the second-year ASU coach, puts the 55-sack debacle aptly: “It’s amazing we won 10 games.”

Now Carpenter is back for his last tour in Tempe, the second-most veteran quarterback in the nation in terms of consecutive starts with 31. And Erickson aims to make it easier for Carpenter to survive the season.

“We’re going back to getting rid of it quickly,” Erickson says. “Spread ‘em out and fling it around.”

Last year, the Sun Devils featured a big back in Ryan Torain, until he got hurt midway through. The offense was tilted toward his running and a play-action passing scheme with a lot of seven-step drops by Carpenter.

The line often couldn’t handle it.

“We didn’t protect well enough up front, and we didn’t get it off as quickly as we should have,” said Erickson.

Now the Sun Devils have a largely retooled offensive line, with just two starters returning — Fanaika, assuming he’s speaking again to Carpenter, and left guard Shawn Lauvao. ASU will be less experienced there than a year ago, but more athletic.

With the gutty Carpenter and the top four receivers back, representing 170 catches, the Sun Devils will look more like a traditional Erickson team. They’ll often be in four-wide-receiver sets.

“We’ve got five or six receivers that can really play, that are athletic and skilled,” Carpenter says. “Our plan is, let’s get those guys the ball. Let’s let them make the plays, take the pressure off the offensive line and myself.”

Keegan Herring, the key returning back, lends to that style. He’s 195 pounds, smaller than Torain, better in the open field. Quietly, Herring has piled up 2,234 career yards at ASU, 890 more than anybody else returning in the Pac-10, but he has battled a shoulder problem in fall camp.

As for Carpenter, so bruised was his body after last season that he believes it had a big effect on ASU’s season-ending downer, a 52-34 wipeout to Texas in the Holiday Bowl.

“We had the Arizona game over, we won, we’re 10-2, and then we had that long layoff,” said Carpenter. “I just felt like, ‘Oh, man, I’m beat up.’ I got in the vacation mode, almost. What I should have done was continue to work out and be in shape.

“All of a sudden, we had another game. It was tough.”

Carpenter was only 18 of 36 for 187 yards against the Longhorns. Now he says he’s added 20 solid pounds, to 225, to ensure against breaches up front.

The mental part, he’s already on top of. Carpenter figures he spends about 15 hours a week, Monday through Friday, eyeballing video on his own. He’s cast in the mold Erickson was as a quarterback, not a classic stylist but a gamer.

“He’s a jock,” Erickson says. “He studies the game more than any quarterback I’ve been around, and he understands the game more than anybody I’ve been around.”

On defense, there’s enough returning that ASU is widely seen as the team to supplant USC as Pac-10 titlist if the Trojans falter. End Dexter Davis has 16.5 career sacks, safety Troy Nolan is capable of an all-star season, and corner Omar Bolden is one of the league’s better ones.

Kicking is no problem, with Groza Award winner Thomas Weber (24 of 25 field goals last year) on hand. Weber might also punt.

Last year, ASU played six of its first eight at home and acquired enough belief to finish 10-2. This year, the schedule turns testy with a Sept. 20 game against Georgia, followed by California, USC and Oregon.

“The three best teams in the Pac-10, all in a row,” noted Carpenter. “If we can play well, we can set ourselves up for some good stuff at the end of the year. If we don’t, we can be in some trouble.”

In which case, his teammates might be keeping out of Carpenter’s way.

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or bwithers@seattletimes.com

Schedule
All times Pacific
Date Opponent Time
Aug. 30 vs. Northern Arizona 7
Sept. 6 vs. Stanford 7
Sept. 13 vs. UNLV 7
Sept. 20 vs. Georgia 5:13
Oct. 4 at California TBA
Oct. 11 at USC TBA
Oct. 25 vs. Oregon TBA
Nov. 1 at Oregon State 6:15
Nov. 8 at Washington TBA
Nov. 15 vs. Washington State TBA
Nov. 28 vs. UCLA 6:30
Dec. 6 at Arizona TBA