TEMPE, Ariz. — For the past eight months, Arizona State’s wide receivers have fielded questions about their lack of experience, their lack of maturity and their lack of polish.
Over the past two weeks, the coaching staff joined the fray, noting one important addendum: their lack of performance.
“We don’t need a cheerleader,” coach Todd Graham said of the group heading into the Missouri game. “We need somebody that does everything right and displays toughness.”
Last week in Columbia, Missouri, the group didn’t heed the call-out. Sprinter Rashad Ross had more drops (at least two) than catches (one for 16 yards) and the group tallied 16 catches for just 183 yards with no single receiver topping 50 yards in a gut-wrenching, 24-20 loss.
“Last week, I didn’t do the little things like coming in here and watching film when I was supposed to,” Ross said. “Just the little things like focusing, catching the ball and looking it in. Practicing hard, not slacking off, going hard every play.”
Following that Missouri performance, Ross said he learned his lesson. He focused on his routes, he focused on looking the ball into his hands and he paid attention in film study with fellow receiver Alonzo Agwuenu and others, who helped point out his errors and ways to correct them.
For one week, at least, Ross and the Sun Devils receivers applied those lessons in a game.
On Saturday against Utah, four players topped 50 yards and nine different players totaled 23 catches for 372 yards in a thorough, 37-7 whipping of Utah.
“They responded big time,” Graham said. “I saw some guys attacking the football, saw some guys getting after it blocking downfield, saw guys being physical.”
Ross got the Sun Devils off and rolling when he hauled in a Taylor Kelly pass at about the Utah 15-yard line, then side-stepped his defender to take it into the end zone for a 38-yard touchdown just four minutes and 12 seconds into the game.
“It was the same play as last week when I caged off the guy and I raised my hand up and he threw it and I took my eye off the ball and I dropped it,” Ross said. “This week, I was like, ‘don’t take your eye off the ball!'”
Ross didn’t have that problem on Saturday, hauling in five catches for a team-high 87 yards to complement big games from Chris Coyle (5 catches, 62 yards), Jamal Miles (4 catches, 59 yards) and Kevin Ozier (2 catches, 73 yards), who Graham dared last week to be more than a journeyman receiver.
“I feel like (Graham) just was challenging us,” Ross said. “I was like, OK, we’ve got to step up as a unit because he’s really calling us out.”
When ASU entered the season, the wide receiver position was the second biggest offensive question mark behind the quarterbacks. The Sun Devils lost their top three receivers in terms of yardage from the year before, and none of the returners was considered a polished route runner or a true receiver.
Ross, in particular, battled the stigma that he was a sprinter playing receiver – a notion perpetuated by his eye-popping, 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against Boise State in the Las Vegas Bowl in which he simply pulled away from the Broncos’ pursuit.
Ross never shied away from that ability, but he insists he has put in the time on his route running and the other intricacies of the position.
“I’m fast. That’s what I am so everybody looks at that first,” he said. “But I’m trying to prove to everybody that I can be a receiver also.”
The Sun Devils would like nothing better as they try to stretch the field and keep defenses from collapsing on their short passing and running games. Ross had a couple of those field-stretching plays on Saturday, including a juggling, 29-yard catch along the sideline that was initially ruled incomplete, but was overturned and led to ASU’s second touchdown.
“We got some fade throws down the field,” Graham said. “That’s what we’re going to have to do in this league to get people off of us.”