Scrimmages give fans final look at ASU, UA football hopes

In Tempe, the crowd of fans on hand last weekend for Arizona State‘s final football scrimmage and meet-the-players opportunity was estimated at between 2,000 and 3,000 of the faithful.

But down the I-10 freeway in Tucson, three times that many of the Wildcat Nation were on hand to meet their team and take in a final chance to see them perform before the season opener in little more than a week.

The University of Arizona is coming off a season that started well, but collapsed in the second half, and was capped by an embarrassing bowl loss.  And this year, the Cats aren’t expected to do much better than a mid-conference finish.

But, obviously, the fan base is still with them – and hoping the pre-season projections are undeserved.

ASU, however, has been struggling for three years now – but is expected by most prognosticators to have a break-out season in 2011.  The Sun Devils have a quarterback in Brock Osweiler who showed he has what it takes to lead this squad when he finished the last two games of the 2010 season by starting for the injured Steven Threet, and winning both – including a huge season-ending victory over rival Arizona.

And they will have one of the best defensive units in the country this year, anchored by linebacker Vontaze Burfict, who is expected to be in consideration for national Defensive Player of the Year honors.

Maybe the Sun Devil fans are taking more of a wait-and-see approach to this year.  After all, they’ve seen their balloon of optimism get burst the last three years.

Hey, even the head coach wasn’t too happy after the scrimmage.  Dennis Erickson called the results from the first competition in full pads a “mixed bag.”

“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” he said after the Saturday scrimmage.  “If we want to compete for the (conference) championship, we need to do better than we did today.”  The Sun Devils have been picked by many to finish either first or second in the South Division of the Pac-12 Conference.

Osweiler’s performance in the scrimmage was steady as the offense, under several different QBs, ran up 315 yards in the air and 43 on the ground.  Mike Bercovici and Taylor Kelly took their reps as each vies for the right to be put at No. 2 on the depth chart.

Erickson has less time than his Arizona rivals to get his squad ready for its opener with University of California-Davis.  They play on Sept. 1, which is a Thursday night, rather than the usual Saturday afternoon tilt.

Down in Tucson, UofA head coach Mike Stoops was a little more upbeat than Erickson.

“I saw a lot of good things out there,” he told his team after their scrimmage, which concluded what he considered to be a successful pre-season training camp.

The 49-year-old head coach, who is in his eighth year at the helm of the Cats program, feels that this team has made significant progress over the summer toward getting back to where it was last year at mid-season when it was ranked No. 9 in the nation.

Stoops has his No. 1 quarterback back back for a third season, which makes it seem like the Cats aren’t being given enough respect in the season previews.  Nick Foles, who transferred in from Michigan State, has been the starting signal caller since the 2009 season and has become one of the best in the conference.

Foles set passing records coming out of Westlake High School in Austin, Tex., and will likely finish his career at Arizona with more of the same if he has a solid senior season.  Last year, despite missing a couple of games, he threw for 3,191 yards as a junior.

The offense showed well in the scrimmage, running up over 400 combined yards, even while the defense was limiting them to just a 2-for-13 performance on third-down conversions.

But, the UofA scrimmage had something the one in Tempe didn’t offer.

Tucson fans have a special kinship to one of the most high-profile recruits snagged by the Cats in recent years – running back Ka’Deem Carey from nearby Canyon del Oro High School, where he was ranked by Rivals.com as the seventh-best recruit in Arizona.

The powerfully-built (5’10”, 190 lb.) freshman electrified Friday nights the last couple of year at CDO, as he carried the ball for 2,738 yards his junior year and 1,754 in an injury-riddled senior year.  He accounted for 71 touchdowns those two years.

Stoops had nothing but praise for the young star-to-be after the scrimmage, calling him a complete player that is expected to bring break-away speed to the game – and a lift to the team’s fortunes.

“It’s just a matter of getting him repetitions and getting him comfortable in our offense,” said Stoops.  “If we continue to do that, he’ll continue to get more playing time as he gets more consistent.”

Carey is contending with sophomore, Kylan Butler, and fellow freshman, Jared Baker, for the chance to move up the depth chart and get some playing time behind Keola Antolin and Daniel Jenkins.

He carried six times in the scrimmage, racking up 69 yards.

The Sept. 3 opener is a home game against Northern Arizona University from the Big Sky Conference.  ASU should be able to get a good number of players into that game, thus providing a good opportunity to see what the kid from CDO can do in a game situation.

And what the Wildcats will be bringing to the table this year.

(Photo: ASU Athletics/Alex Ryan)