ASU season preview: Receivers
AUG 28, 2013 3:16p ET
They aren't ready to call it a mission accomplished just yet, but the Sun Devils appear to have done what they set out to do.
"I don't want to compare it to last year's guys, but we feel like we've got some real weapons on the perimeter this year," offensive coordinator Mike Norvell said. "We feel like we've got some guys that can stretch the field vertically. I think (receiver) is going to be one of the strengths of the team this year."
ASU landed five wide receivers in its 2013 recruiting class, along with tight end/H-back De'Marieya Nelson. Factor in a couple returning receivers, tight end Chris Coyle and running backs D.J. Foster and Marion Grice and receivers coach DelVaughn Alexander uses a phrase he probably couldn't have imagined uttering last season.
"We have tremendous depth," Alexander said. "We have a lot of weapons."
With ASU's Sept. 5 opener fast approaching, here's a look at what to expect from the Sun Devils' new-look receiving corps.
Jaelen Strong (X), Richard Smith (Z), Kevin Ozier (Y), Chris Coyle (TE)
After playing in all 13 games as a freshman, tallying 14 receptions, Smith has drawn high praise from coaches this fall. Graham called him the most improved player on offense (though if really put on the spot Graham would likely give that distinction to Foster). He has gone from in the mix at the start of camp to having a seemingly unbreakable hold on a starting job.
What's been the difference for the somewhat undersized sophomore?
"Most of the time it's mental when you're taking that kind of step," receivers coach Alexander said. "That mental maturity is what he's really put onto the field. He's done a great job trying to understand and meet the expectation, and that's not easy to do."
Smith has displayed great hands and solid speed throughout camp, but his ability to be a big-play threat if needed will make the receiving corps more versatile and make it harder for opponents to key on Strong, the true big-play threat.
Right now, ASU's wide receiving corps sure looks the part. It's got size, speed and physicality. What it doesn't have is proof, making for a classic case of looking good on paper.
"Those guys have been coached hard, they've been strained, and now they have to maintain that level of focus," Alexander said. "They have to maintain up until kickoff."
Unproven as the receivers may be, the future looks bright, and it starts with Strong, a 6-foot-4 transfer from Pierce junior college. He got started a few days late due to delayed academic clearance but caught up quickly and has impressed the coaches.
"Right away he had a certain level of confidence in knowing what he's supposed to do," Alexander said. "Now it's being tired and the emotion of coaches being all over you that he has to work through and still be focused and execute."
Strong gives ASU the big-play threat down field it lacked last season, and coaches have made it clear they plan on taking shots. He also gives ASU a big perimeter blocker, which should help open up the run game.
Coaches also expect freshmen Ellis Jefferson and Cameron Smtih to contribute significantly. Jefferson has displayed route-running ability and physicality beyond his years, while Cameron Smith, before being hampered by a hamstring injury, displayed speed that might make him one of the fastest players on the team. Junior college transfer Joe Morris, expected to contribute at the Y position, remains a bit of an unknown, as he has missed most of the preseason with a foot injury.
Junior college transfer De'Marieya Nelson, a "3-back" tight end, has also made quite the impression with his versatility as a ball carrier, receiver and blocker.
"He's a guy that really is an x-factor because he can do so many different things," Graham said. "I've been very pleased with him. He's what I thought he was. He's a heck of a player."
But as much as newcomers are expected to provides ASU's offense with strengths it sorely lacked last season, so, too, are a few returners.
Richard Smith and Kevin Ozier have earned starting jobs, with Smith making huge strides to be ASU's No. 2 receiver and Ozier proving himself as much a capable possession receiver as he is a veteran leader.
It's tight end Chris Coyle, though, who could again be quarterback Taylor Kelly's favorite target. After setting a single-season school record for receptions by a tight end (57) last year, Coyle is poised for perhaps an even better season. He had an impressive fall camp, albeit a quiet one, as he's simply become a reliable force who gets the job done without much fanfare.
Coyle could see his numbers decrease with the arrival of Nelson and the new receivers, but surely he won't mind if it means a more dynamic offense that's scoring even more than it did last season.
The success of the receivers will hinge on a number of factors outside their control, primarily Kelly. But if his 2012 is any indicator and his enthusiasm about the multitude of weapons now at his disposal translates to good chemistry, Kelly should make a lot of guys look good.
"I can't wait," Kelly said. "I'm excited. They're like new toys."
One to watch
Ellis Jefferson made a quick impression on coaches, particularly because of his physical, no-fear style of play. He could start eventually and should get significant action either way. He isn't going to blow anyone away with his speed, but Jefferson's physical presence -- he's 6-foot-4 and 200 pounds -- gives him something ASU lacked last season. It will be worth watching just how much he contributes if Morris emerges as a frontline receiver.
"This year we feel great about our depth, we feel like we're going to be extremely explosive and make plays down the field. There's a lot of confidence in that. These guys are ready to go out and be productive." -- Receivers coach DelVaughn Alexander.