Unlike last season, the Arizona State Sun Devils will see several key players, including 14 starters, depart the program.
While high-profile departures like quarterback Brock Osweiler and middle linebacker Vontaze Burfict have gotten most of the attention due to their decisions to forgo their senior years in favor of the NFL Draft, there are many areas that will be hurting greatly in 2012. The offensive line loses three starters and two key backups, the defense loses both starting safeties and the two linebackers who flanked Burfict for most of the year--Shelly Lyons and Colin Parker--have exhausted their eligibilty.
But it is at wide receiver that the team's losses may be the most pronounced.
The unit has four outgoing seniors, including three starters who were also the top three in receiving yards from a season ago. Gerell Robinson was hands down the team's MVP last year, hauling in 77 passes and his 1,397 yards were the second most in team history. Aaron Pflugrad started the season hot, and despite tailing off over the course of the year, finished second to Robinson with 655 yards. Mike Willie failed to roll the momentum he generated in 2010 into a big 2011, but still managed 455 yards on 36 receptions. The depth takes a hit as well, as key reserve George Bell moves on after catching 18 passes for 211 yards.
Taken as a total, that group accounted for 52% of the team's receptions and 66% of the receiving yards from 2011. No matter which way you look at it, that is a major hole to fill.
New head coach Todd Graham and offensive coordinator Mike Norvell are bringing in a spread offense that shares many similarities to the scheme used by the Sun Devil over the previous two years under former coordinator Noel Mazzone. That means that having several capable wide receivers will be a necessity. Amplifying this need is the fact that with Osweiler's departure, there will be a first-time starting quarterback for the Devils this fall.
The spring and fall camps will be an interesting showcase for the many candidates seeking to replace the starting senior trio, but one name to keep an eye on is also the most recent addition to the program.
Alonzo Agwuenu is a junior college transfer who signed with the Sun Devil during the mid-year junior college transfer period in late December, one of five players Graham brought into the fold.
Agwuenu played for Mount San Antonio College in California after academic issues prevented him from going to an FBS program out of high school. In 2011, Agwuenu caught 73 passes for 1,125 yards and 19 touchdowns, earning him a three-star prospect rating from Rivals.com. He also received offers from several schools, including Kentucky, Nevada, Mississippi State and Oregon State.
What sets Agwuenu apart is his size-6'4" and 210 pounds. Like Agwuenu, both Robinson and Willie were 6'4" and able to use their height and body control to their advantage. With the four leading returning receivers--Jamal Miles, Rashad Ross, Kevin Ozier and A.J. Pickens--all 6'0" or less, the need for another tall receiver to help out the new quarterback is paramount.
But height is not the only weapon in Agwuenu's toolbox. He also has good speed to stretch the field, having been timed as low as 4.48 seconds in the 40-yard dash, as well as a 33-inch vertical leap that only help the margin of error for any pass thrown his way by the new quarterback.
The leap from the California juco ranks to the Pac-12 is a major one, and to what extent Agwuenu factors in to the 2012 season will depend on his ability to rise to the challenge of honing his skills, learning a new playbook and adopting the disciplinarian policies that Graham has installed. In an interview with DevilsDigest.com, Agwuenu stated his belief that he should be able to handle that move to the FBS successfully.
"I feel I can still work on all my skills and I know that once I get a Division I school training, I will improve, especially on all the little things like getting off the ball quicker, running with perfect form. I know that with ability and work ethic I have I can be even a better player at the next level."
The Sun Devils are clearly in a state of significant transition. From the coaching staff, to the on-field schemes to the overall culture, the 2012 Sun Devils are leaving the bitter memories of the Dennis Erickson regime behind them. It's only fitting that a player making his own major transition has the opportunity to be a key component to ASU's rebuilding.
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For more on Agwuenu and five other potential X-factors for ASU in 2012, click here.