One of the strengths of the Arizona State Sun Devil football team coming into 2011 was experience. Up and down the roster were returning starters and backups who had seen meaningful time.
The 2012 team does not boast that same luxury.
Gone are fifteen players who made starts in 2011, and most every area of the team except for running back felt the sting of those losses.
One of those that was most affected was wide receiver, where the departures of Gerell Robinson, Aaron Pflugrad, Mike Willie and George Bell represent 66% of the team's receiving yards from a season ago.
Replacing that production presents one of the greatest challenges for the team this offseason, and the battle to ascend the depth chart begins during spring practices, which begin on March 13th.
Let's take an in-depth breakdown of the contenders for playing time, by breaking them down into three major groups.
The Experienced Veterans
Senior Jamal Miles, ASU's "slash" extraordinaire, makes his official home at wide receiver and is the team's top returning receiver with 60 receptions. However, all those catches only went for 361 yards, as most of his action came on swing passes out of the backfield or on quick screens. Miles has great speed and has shown good hands at times, but his route running is still very unrefined, and he lacks a prototypical wide receiver frame (5'10", 180 pounds). It will be interesting to see during spring practice how and where offensive coordinator Mike Norvell utilizes him.
A player who is gaining a lot of momentum is senior speedster Rashad Ross, who we profiled in our Breakout Candidate series last month. Ross developed from a part-time special teamer to a legitimate deep threat by the end of the season, posting a five-catch, 108 yard game against Cal. With his lethal speed (he recently won the MPSF 200-meter indoor track championship), the 6'0" Ross has the inside track to be the team's home run threat. Like Miles, he needs to refine his route running, but a strong spring could land him a starting job.
Senior A.J. Pickens caught 12 passes a year ago, scoring two touchdowns. At 5'10", 168 pounds, he makes up for his lack of size with a good burst of speed, and he had success a season ago working the crossing routes across the middle. Pickens has seen little playing time over his first three seasons, so the time is now for him to break through into a more prominent role.
Junior Kevin Ozier is hoping that his upward journey from humble walk-on beginnings includes a starting spot in 2012. He's worked diligently over his time in Tempe and Coach Graham recently rewarded him with a scholarship. On the field, he has good size at 6'0", 200 pounds and has shown above-average speed and hands, as evidenced by his touchdown catch against Colorado. That skill combination should land him significant time, and a strong spring may land him a starting job in the fall.
Kyle Middlebrooks, like Miles, is another slash type of player. He had some good moments as a running back and a receiver in 2010, but last year he regressed significantly. The loaded ASU backfield may force him to wide receiver, but with so many players competing for jobs, he may be an odd man out.
The next group contains three juniors who have seen little time on the field over their tenure at ASU.
Chris Coyle is a big bodied target (6'3", 231 pounds) who played sparingly in all 13 games last season. With his size, he may see time in a H-back type role, as the new offensive scheme will involve the tight ends more in the passing game. Unfortunately for Coyle, he will miss spring practice with with a shoulder injury.
With the departure of Robinson and Willie, the offense is in need of a tall target, and Jarrid Bryant could be the guy. He's the tallest receiver in the corps at 6'5", but rail thin. He doesn't have elite speed, but with his height, he could be a redzone target that can "go get it" and beat defensive backs for jump balls.
J.J. Holliday's season got off to a rough start due to a broken collarbone suffered in August, and he appeared in just three games during the season and did not make a reception. Holliday has the skills needed to be a contributor, and with the opportunity created by the departures, his best chance at meaningful playing time begins with a strong showing in the spring.
The final group contains players who are total unknowns on the playing field and may be another year or so away from significant contributions, but they could enter into the discussion with strong springs.
Ditto for Gary Chambers. After a decorated prep career here in the Valley, Chambers enters spring ball as a 6'3" redshirt freshman with a ton of talent, and he may be the best suited among this group to see immediate action.
Redshirt sophomore Kevin Anderson fits the mold of a shifty slot receiver, standing just 5'9" and 177 pounds. With players such as Miles, Middlebrooks and Pickens serving a similar role, his path to the field is strewn with a few more obstacles than the others.
Coming This Fall
The already crowded picture will become even more dense in the fall when three members of the 2012 recruiting class come on board.
Alonzo Agwuenu is a very intriguing prospect who figures to see plenty of action immediately, and may very well secure a starting job. After an accomplished two-season junior college career, the 6'4" Agwuenu brings a wealth of talent and a polished game to the Sun Devils. (Hear Agwuenu discuss his role on his recent appearance on the Speak of the Devils show)
Richard Smith and Josiah Blandin are both members of the "Poly 4" group of prospects. The 5'9" Smith is an explosive slot receiver who could see action as a freshman, while Blandin is a lanky 6'4" wide receiver who needs time to develop and should be destined for a redshirt.
This will be a fun story to follow throughout the spring and fall. Not a single player on the roster has had sustained success as a true wide receiver at this level, but all of them are very talented. Guys like Ross, Ozier and Miles figure to be the early leaders for large playing time, with Holliday, Bryant and Chambers highlighting that next tier of potential breakout players. Part of the charm of spring and fall camps, after all, is seeing the middle-to-bottom depth chart guys emerge and force their way into prominent roles.
With a new coaching staff, there is no pre-existing loyalty, so rest assured that the players who fit the "high octane" mold and give the team the best chance to win will see the field.
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