On the first day of spring practice, Arizona State coach Todd Graham made his greatest concern pretty obvious as the Sun Devils prepped for the summer.
“You can come out here in a hurry and see wide receivers (are an issue),” Graham said. “I can’t wait to get the five guys we signed in here. … We don’t have very many scholarship receivers out here.”
Wide receiver was a sore spot in Graham’s first season, though tight end Chris Coyle was a bright spot. Only one true receiver, Rashad Ross, tallied more than 400 yards, as Coyle and running backs Marion Grice and D.J. Foster led the way in receiving yards.
Graham, despite his eagerness to see his new receivers in the fall, had a few to watch this spring. Here’s how things developed:
Richard Smith, wide receiver
After impressing in spurts last season, Smith, now a sophomore, entered the spring in good position to stand out next to seniors Kevin Ozier and Alonzo Agwuenu, ASU’s other top returners. He impressed most of the trio, though Graham feels Smith still has work to do.
“Rick’s a guy that’s got to step up and mature, and he’s got to get more physical,” Graham said. “He’s got great ability. He’s just got to understand at this level the level you have to work at and train at, and he’s doing that. He’s maturing.”
Coaches talked more than anything about Smith’s need to get more physical, probably because of his size. At 5-foot-9, Smith is a small target and will have to start separating himself from defenders in order to stretch the field, though he could also develop nicely into a possession receiver.
“They’re right,” Smith said of his coaches’ assessments. “I do need to improve on being more physical and recognizing the speed of this level a lot more than I did last year.”
Smith does possess the speed to be an impact receiver for ASU, but he first must learn to work at full speed consistently and then sharpen his other skills — footwork, hands, route running, etc. If he can do those things, Smith should have a real chance to emerge as one of ASU’s top receivers in 2013.
Realistically, there’s still a lot of unknown with Smith. He appears to have major potential, but it’s not clear yet how it will manifest. Though much of the attention will be on newcomers Jaelen Strong and Joseph Morris this fall, Smith has the advantage of already knowing ASU’s offense and coaches’ expectations for how to practice. Those advantages should give him a leg up if he utilizes them.
“Every day is a new day, and coming into the fall, we’ve got more players coming in, so I’m just going to keep working now harder and harder,” Smith said. “Hopefully that helps me become a starter this fall.”
POST-SPRING DEPTH CHART
X receiver: Kevin Ozier, Alonzo Agwuenu Y receiver: Gary Chambers, Blake Covey Z receiver: Richard Smith, Frederick Gammage Tight end: Darwin Rogers, Kody Kohl H-back: Chris Coyle, Billy Davis
HELP ON THE WAY
ASU is counting on a recruiting class full of receivers to boost the offense in the fall, with the likes of junior-college transfers Jaelen Strong and Joseph Morris battling with freshmen Ronald Lewis, Ellis Jefferson and Cameron Smith for position on the depth chart. ASU also adds H-back De’Marieya Nelson and tight end Grant Martinez, who will likely redshirt his freshman season.
Graham called Strong the “most dynamic receiver I’ve seen in a long time on film” and characterized Morris as “one of the most physical wide receivers in the country.” Nelson, too, seems a perfect fit for Graham’s offense.
“De’Marieya is tailor-made for our three-back (H-back) position,” Graham said. “This guy can play running back … he also can play a tight end and he can also play an inside receiver. He is one of the best chasing tight ends in the country and a guy that is going to be very impactful with what we are doing.”
No other position is expected to get as much of a boost from the arrival of new recruits as wide receiver, and the new players’ contributions will likely have a profound impact on the offense one way or the other.
With just Ozier, Smith and Agwuenu on the radar, there was not expected to be a ton of development at receiver this spring. Really, spring practice felt like little more than a stepping stone to the fall, when a new batch of receivers arrives.
Still, the receivers in place may have actually benefited from the void at their position, getting more coaching and more opportunities. It was up to them to take advantage of their situation.
ASU essentially knows what it has in Kevin Ozier. He’s a solid possession receiver who doesn’t have a ton of speed but plays the game smart. At times last season, it looked like Ozier might set himself apart from the rest of the wide receiver corps, but he never developed the needed consistency.
While Ozier provides physicality and a reliable set of hands, his leadership may be his greatest asset this fall at a position that will have very little Division I experience to speak of.
“I think Kevin is taking a lot of pride with the receiving corps,” Graham said.
Agwuenu remains a work in progress. At 6-foot-4, he has ideal size to be a playmaking wide receiver, but he hasn’t yet been able to capitalize on the opportunities he has seen. This spring offered a big opportunity, and it seems Agwuenu may have missed out.
After earning a little praise early in the spring, Agwuenu seemed to stall. He failed to impress in 11-on-11 drills and was ultimately surpassed on the depth chart. In the spring game, he caught just one pass.
Gary Chambers also made an impression on coaches this spring and at least earned himself the chance to do so again when competition heats up in the fall.
While the unknowns at wide receiver might keep Graham and his staff awake at night, the tight end/H-back position ought to help them sleep a little easier. With Coyle returning after a record-setting 2012 season, quarterback Taylor Kelly has an established target.
Coyle led ASU with 696 yards on 57 receptions last season and continued to impress this spring, making three touchdown catches in the spring game. No doubt, expectations are even greater for Coyle in 2013 after his breakout campaign and a strong spring.
“He can be as good as he wants to be,” Graham said. “That’s what we’ve challenged him to be. Our best players, the standard moves up. It doesn’t stay the same.”
Wide receivers coach DelVaughn Alexander on the incoming wide receivers joining the team in the fall: “We’re excited to mix those guys in and mesh them with the guys we have. How much of an opportunity they get and how much of a role they have depends on how well they do in camp and how much the guys that are already here allow them.”