At Arizona State’s first spring practice in March, coach Todd Graham openly pined for the group of wide receivers he’d signed in his second recruiting class.
“I can’t wait to get the five guys we signed in here,” Graham said. “We don’t have very many.”
Now that those five wideouts have arrived, it appears Graham is getting just what he had hoped for.
“I think all five of the newcomer receivers will play,” Graham said after Saturday’s scrimmage at Camp Tontozona. “Our receiving corps is markedly better.”
With the newcomers making an immediate impact and a couple returners showing signs of improvement, ASU may find wide receiver to be a position of strength, something it certainly wasn’t in 2012.
After seeing a tight end and two running backs finish atop the team’s receptions list in 2012, ASU was clearly in need of some new weapons for quarterback Taylor Kelly, so Graham and his staff went to work stockpiling receivers.
As part of their 2013 recruiting class, the Sun Devils added Pierce College teammates Jaelen Strong and Joe Morris as transfers, with Strong perhaps the biggest get in the entire class, having been pursued by the likes of Miami, Nebraska and Tennessee. Also signed were freshmen wideouts Ellis Jefferson, Cameron Smith and Ronald Lewis.
The group has given ASU the weapons it noticeably lacked last season. In Strong, the Sun Devils believe they have a dynamic receiver who can be the proverbial home run threat.
“He has come on quick,” receivers coach DelVaughn Alexander said. “He’s really smart and really focused. He has a lot of natural instincts when it comes to the game, so he has some football savvy and IQ.”
Strong is still adjusting to ASU’s way of doing things — such as sprinting off the field and running from drill to drill in practice — but made great strides at Camp Tontozona and will likely be the starting “X” receiver when the season begins. That said, Strong admits he has a ways to go and knows he comes to ASU with high expectations.
“I’ve got to live up to them,” Strong said. “I’ve got set the bar higher. I know I have a lot of people counting on me — teammates, fans, alumni, whatever. So I’ve got to set the bar higher, and when I reach that bar, set it higher again. I just have to work harder every day.”
In almost any discussion of Strong, coaches will contend that he has plenty of work left to do, but they can’t seem to stop themselves from raving about his potential. Pac-12 analyst Rick Neuheisel, watching Strong in practice last week, had something to say as well.
“If Jaelen Strong turns out to be what I think he can be, they’re going to be tough to stop,” Neuheisel said.
ASU’s receiving corps has also gotten more physical, particularly in the slot, where Jefferson has emerged as the likely starter. Off the radar entering camp, Jefferson has been perhaps the fastest riser on offense, quickly making an impression on Graham.
“E.J. Jefferson has probably been the guy that’s really stuck out to me,” Graham said. “He’s big, fast, physical. That guy loves to block. It’s nice to have size like that, and he’s been very impressive.”
At 6-foot-4 and 200 pounds, Jefferson doesn’t look like a freshman. And the way he shows no fear catching passes across the middle and in traffic, he doesn’t play like an 18-year-old getting his first taste of Division I football.
Jefferson’s blocking ability is part of a larger trend of increased physicality across the field that should help ASU’s running game immensely.
“The receivers we recruited, they’re not only great playmakers but they’re great blockers,” running back D.J. Foster said. “That just helps us open up the offense and open holes for me and Marion (Grice) and Deantre (Lewis).”
Smith also made a big impression early thanks to his blazing speed and precise routes but has been hampered lately by an apparent hamstring injury. His speed will certainly be a benefit once he’s healthy.
In the meantime, another Smith — sophomore Richard Smith — has come on strong and put himself in position to start at “Z” receiver. Having played in every game as a freshman, Smith has the benefit of experience, but he’s also taken big steps in all areas and made some of the most impressive plays through the first part of fall camp.
“Rick is the most improved guy on offense,” Graham said. “He’s going to be a dynamic receiver.”
With a likely starting group of Strong, Smith and Jefferson, along with talented targets in tight end Chris Coyle and Foster, ASU’s receiving corps appears to have taken a big step forward in terms of playmaking ability.
But it doesn’t end there. With the influx of youth, the Devils also appear to have some depth at the position. Factor in Cameron Smith, Lewis, Morris and returners Kevin Ozier, Alonzo Agwuenu and Gary Chambers, and ASU has solid options on its second and even third unit.
Morris could eventually work his way into a starting role, but he has not yet practiced due to a foot injury. Agwuenu started slowly in camp but has impressed lately, particularly in Saturday’s scrimmage, in which he caught a 78-yard touchdown pass and also had receptions of 27 and 24 yards.
It’s Ozier, though, who could prove to be ASU’s most important receiver. Graham has said that the team needs Ozier more than any other wideout because of his leadership and experience as a senior.
“I’m very pleased with how he’s taken that group — a very young group, a very talented group — and pulled them together,” Graham said. “We have five new guys in that group that are really critical to us and developing that relationship. He’s really been a great mentor to that group, so I’m proud of Kevin.”
Ozier, a former walk-on, likely will have a limited role this season due to the younger receivers’ ascension, but he hasn’t complained. He has embraced his role as shepherd to the group and put the team’s success ahead of his own.
“If I can get the receivers to get in their playbooks, catch balls and know what we’re doing, we’ll be explosive as receivers,” Ozier said. “I want to be better as a group, because the better we are as a group, the more opportunities we have to win games.”
Ozier may also have the best perspective among the players of where the position stands compared to last season, and he doesn’t hesitate to say it’s better. Receivers are making plays, helping to open running lanes and commanding more attention from the defense.
Those things happened infrequently last season, creating perhaps the one glaring weakness for an offense that finished second in the Pac-12 and 14th nationally in scoring. This year, it appears offensive coordinator Mike Norvell will have a few new toys with which to work as he tries to take ASU’s offense to the next level.
“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,” Norvell said. “We feel like we’ve got some guys that can stretch the field vertically. I think that’s going to be one of the strengths of the team this year.”