TEMPE, Ariz. — Wide receiver Ellis Jefferson last fall positioned himself to start in his first year at Arizona State. He’d shown a penchant for making tough catches in traffic and made up for what he lacked in speed with impressive physicality.
Then a minor groin strain derailed his impressive start, sidelining him through part of fall camp and ultimately leading to a redshirt season.
This spring, Jefferson has seized opportunities to make another big impression on coaches and positioned himself to be an impact player in 2014.
"I expect him to be a big-time player," ASU coach Todd Graham said. "He needs to be a starter, every down guy."
After working in the slot last year, Jefferson moved outside this spring, taking reps behind No. 1 receiver Jaelen Strong. When ASU moved Strong around, Jefferson got first team opportunities.
But Strong suffered a sprained toe last week and Jefferson was suddenly thrust into first team action full time.
"Things started getting real," Jefferson said. "I had to lock down on it, and I think I’ve learned now that running with the ones is real tough. It’s not a game."
As much as Jefferson didn’t want to see Strong hurt, he saw an opportunity to further prove himself. Coaches, too, reminded him of the opportunity presented in Strong’s absence.
"When someone goes down it’s time to lock in and show them what you can do," Jefferson said.
Jefferson, 6-foot-4 and 209 pounds, has shown plenty this spring. His route running is improved and he’s made even more big catches, but he says he still has plenty to prove and hopes to show coaches more in Saturday’s spring game.
The goal this season, Jefferson says, is playing time. Whether that means on the boundary as a second teamer or in the slot, Jefferson just wants to play.
"I would play anywhere if I can get playing time," Jefferson said. "I’m not a freshman anymore. I’m a redshirt freshman, and the clock’s ticking."
Jefferson has time to get better before competing for a starting job in the fall. He’s already started watching film one-on-one with starting quarterback Taylor Kelly, regularly studies defensive coverage schemes and will have the chance to improve physically — more than he already has — in ASU’s summer strength program.
Through his injury last fall and the ensuing redshirt season, Jefferson was frustrated. This spring has made up for that, and Jefferson knows his opportunity to play is coming whether it’s as a key reserve this season or Strong’s replacement the next.
"He’s a guy that can be a starter for us there," Graham said. "We expect him to be a guy that’s playing at a high level."
ASU went longer than usual in its morning practice Tuesday, and Graham revealed afterward it was essentially the team’s last practice of the spring. They will gather again Thursday morning but they won’t be practicing; they’ll be game-planning.
Graham said after some team sessions Thursday to go over summer routines the team will be split into a maroon team and a gold team. One group will be coached by co-defensive coordinator Keith Patterson and offensive line coach Chris Thomsen and the other by offensive coordinator Mike Norvell and co-defensive coordinator Chris Ball.
The teams will meet in Saturday’s spring scrimmage, a departure from the usual offense vs. defense format of spring games. While spring games — and spring practice in general — typically shed only limited light on the coming season, Graham has been happy with what he’s seen from his returners this spring and looks forward to putting them in front of fans Saturday.
"I told them after practice we have enough," Graham said. "We don’t have a lot, but we have enough. I love the character; I love the attitude. We’re so much farther along in the discipline and what we’re doing. I’m really pleased with where we’re at.
"I’m really pleased with how spring went. We’ve got a lot of work to do, there’s no doubt about that. I’m excited about getting the newcomers to come in here and challenge them, but we’ve got enough. I believe in this team."
— Redshirt freshman wide receiver Ronald Lewis saw action at cornerback in 11-on-11 sessions at Tuesday’s practice. Lewis got beat a few times, and the move is probably more spring experimenting than anything, but Graham was impressed and Lewis should get more looks.
"I liked what I saw today, even though he got beat two or three times or whatever," Graham said. "He’s physical; he’s big; he’s fast. I think he can help us there, so we’re going to look at him more there."
— Strong was still limited to mostly sideline conditioning Tuesday. Norvell said Strong will be limited in Saturday’s scrimmage. Based on his participation last week and Tuesday, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Strong is held out of the scrimmage altogether.
— Cornerback Rashad Wadood (thigh bruise) remained limited Tuesday. Elsewhere, Devilbacker Viliami Latu (concussion) returned to action after missing the previous four practices.