While the majority of the fall camp attention has fallen on who will be throwing the passes for the Sun Devils, the battle to be the players to catch those balls has continued without nearly the fanfare.
Arizona State lost 182 receptions (55% of the team total) and 2,786 receiving yards (68%) from last season. In other words, most of their pass catchers need to be replaced. While the talent is certainly in place to make for a viable receiving corps in 2012, there is little of the way in terms of experience or consistency.
Among the wide receivers, Jamal Miles' 60 receptions accounts for nearly two-thirds of the group's returning production. As for the tight ends, they are finally being removed from the NCAA witness protection program and back into the fold, after combining for just eight receptions and 76 yards over the two seasons under former offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone.
2012 ASU Season Preview
Under new offensive coordinator Mike Norvell's offense, the Sun Devils will be a run-first team, but should the receivers and tight ends not be able to form a decent passing attack with whoever wins the quarterback job, opposing defenses will begin to stack the box and neutralize the formidable Sun Devil backfield. They will also be shifting to a more vertical passing attack, after the more horizontal, quick-pass-centric schemes of Mazzone.
So what can we expect from the Sun Devil wide receivers and tight ends? We take an in-depth look and get first hand breakdowns from key players at each position.
First up, we examine the wide receivers, with guest analysis from Kevin Ozier.
Jamal Miles, senior
Ozier's take: "He's a speedy guy who can challenge a corner downfield. He has good routes and he'll run past you. He's just an athlete."
The closest thing to a known commodity this group has to a known quantity, Miles returns after catching those 60 passes in 2011, although many of those were quick screens and swing passes out of the backfield.
This season, the explosive 5-foot-10, 180 pounder will be required to refine a traditional wide receiver role. While he has the speed, his route running and pass catching remain works in progress. While he many never develop into a "true" wide receiver, his playmaking ability is among the best in the Pac-12. In other words, just get him the ball in any way you can.
J.J. Holliday, redshirt junior
Ozier's take: "J.J. brings a lot to the table. He's a 9-man, so he plays outside. He'll go get the ball, you throw it up and he works his hardest. 100% effort every play."
One of the more encouraging developments during spring practice was the emergence of J.J. Holliday. The talented but oft-injured Tucson native still has yet to record a reception at ASU, but that figures to change quickly. He impressed coaches during the spring with crisp routes and reliable hands to complement his great speed.
He's carried that over into fall camp, and looks to be in line to win a starting job at the 9, or outside, receiver spot. While he's primed to be one of the breakout stars of the team, his inexperience still remains a worry until he proves it on game day.
Kevin Ozier, redshirt junior
Ozier's self-take: "I'm going to catch the ball. I'm going to work hard. I'm going to block my tail off. "
One of the most inspiring stories on the roster, Ozier has tirelessly worked his way from a walk-on to scholarship recipient to the presumptive starter at the slot receiver spot. While other members of the receiving corps have better size, speed or raw talent, Ozier has continued to put in the blue collar work needed to be a contributor.
Ozier has good size at 6-foot and 198 pounds, runs crisp routes and has perhaps the surest hands on the team. Another key area in which he excels is run blocking, which the coaching staff has stressed given the new run-heavy attack, and that should help gain Ozier additional playing time.
Rashad Ross, senior
Ozier's take: "He's blazing fast. You put him anywhere on the field—inside or outside—and no one can run with him."
Ozier is spot on; Ross is fast. Blazing fast. Not only a burner on the gridiron, Ross' elite speed has translated well for the Sun Devil track team. He began to emerge late last year, going for 108 yards and a touchdown against Cal, and then returned a kickoff 98-yards for a score in the Maaco Bowl against Boise State.
But as the Oakland Raiders know, speed alone won't make you a great player. Ross is still a work in progress in terms of consistency, and thus far in fall camp, he's been often running with the second team offense and been wearing a green "no contact" jersey. Should he manage to gain that downfield consistency he flashed late in 2011, this year's team will get a major weapon that can strike deep and open up the shorter routes for others.
Alonzo Agwuenu, redshirt junior
Ozier's take: "He's a big body too. He has good hands. He'll go get the ball in jump ball situations, being one of our taller receivers."
With the loss of the 6-foot-4 Gerell Robinson, the Sun Devils lost a big-bodied target. With the addition of juco-transfer Alonzo Agwuenu, they get one loaded with potential.
Agwuenu was a highly productive player at Mt. San Antonio College, and brings a refined game to Tempe in a 6-foot-4, 210-pound frame. His blend of size, speed and experience has led to some big plays already in fall camp, and it will be a shock if he doesn't see significant time this season. How productive that time becomes remains to be seen.
Richard Smith, true freshman
Ozier's take: "He's speedy like Jamal, but his speed is different. He's quick. He's shifty. He'll make a couple guys miss. Jamal will do that too, but Rich I feel like will be a great player."
Another newcomer, Smith is the smallest player on the ASU roster at 5-foot-9 and just 161 pounds, but makes up for it with tremendous quickness and agility.
He's already turning heads at practice with his explosiveness out of the slot receiver spot, and he has also seen time as a returner. That early success and the team's need have Smith not only in line to avoid a redshirt and see time this fall as a true freshman, but to become a major contributor.
A.J. Pickens, redshirt senior
Ozier's take: "He's like Jamal, but in a different sense. He's a speedy guy. He can do everything Jamal can do, in my eyes."
An enigma, Pickens showed off some playmaking ability in 2011, scoring two touchdowns, but thus far the senior has been buried on the depth chart since the coaching change. He has the speed to be a factor at the Z receiver spot, but has yet to put enough consistency behind him to see the field.
Gary Chambers, redshirt freshman
Ozier's take: "He's younger, but he's been working on his game, working on his routes, working on his blocking. If he has a good camp, he'll play this season. He's a bigger body."
Chambers' blend of size (6-foot-3) and speed give him very intriguing tools, allowing him to play outside and in the slot. As a redshirt freshman, he's still very raw, but has the ability to develop into a playmaker for the team at some point in the future, if not in 2012.
Others Wide Receivers
Rounding out the group are some younger players with potential for down the road. Karl Holmes has a similar size/speed blend of Chambers, and the redshirt freshman recently switched positions to the outside spot where his skills translate best. Kevin Anderson has a shifty build at 5-foot-9 and may have his best chance to get reps at the Z spot next season after Miles is gone. True freshman Josiah Blandin brings good size at 6-foot-4, but may be headed for a redshirt.
As we've covered a few times, the once mighty Sun Devil tight end position will be resurrected as a viable offensive weapon after years of total irrelevance. Even more intriguing is the potential of the new 3-back role, which will be a versatile piece of the offense, lining up in the slot, on the line and in the backfield.
To help break down the tight ends and 3-backs, we spoke to Chris Coyle, the current first team 3-back.
Chris Coyle, junior
Coyle's self-take: "I want to make sure I catch everything thrown my way and nothing hits the ground. I want to make sure I focus on my blocking-especially in this new offense-so I can really open holes for these running backs. I also plan on getting into the endzone as many times as possible for the Sun Devils."
If there is going to be one player who can bring back the potency of the position to Sun Devil football, it's Coyle. He has a great frame at 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds, with the speed and hands to be a major threat along the seams and over the middle.
He's recovered from the injuries that kept him out of spring, and has been having a solid camp as the team's starting 3-back. If he can stay healthy, Coyle should be a favorite short-to-intermediate target for the new starting quarterback.
Darwin Rogers, junior
Coyle's take: "Darwin's been doing really well. He's been working hard, he's been in the film room. He's definitely picked up this offense. We're competing every single day and making each other better."
While Coyle will be lining up all over the field, Rogers will likely see the bulk of the time as the team's traditional tight end. A midyear transfer from Arizona Western College, Rogers took part in spring practice and performed well enough to enter spring as the team's starter.
Rogers has a good frame at 6-foot-4, 240 pounds, and has shown good in-line blocking ability. While that blocking may be his greatest contribution in 2012, he also has sneaky athleticism, allowing him to be a big-bodied short-range target in the passing game.
Max Smith, redshirt junior
Coyle's take: "He's a good blocker and receiver. He's got reliable hands, so when he's healthy again, he'll be in competition for the 3-back."
Should he be able to recover from a back injury that could put his season in jeopardy, Smith could become a contributor at tight end. His greatest asset resides in his blocking ability, and at 252 pounds, he has the squat build to be effective along the line. Smith has also seen a lot of time on special teams, and could help as a long snapper...if healthy.
Marcus Washington, redshirt sophomore
Coyle's take: "He's an awesome athlete, just a tough kid. He's really physical in his blocking, and he's picking up the offense each day. He's getting better each day, and he works really hard."
ASU's crowded backfield was eased a little during spring when running back Marcus Washington was moved to the the 3-back spot. Washington doesn't have the height that you'd want in the position (5-foot-11), but is a solid athlete whose versatility could help out the team. His ball skills from his running back days have translated well, and may be a possibility to see some short passes and runs.
Other Tight Ends
Rounding out the depth chart is a familiar name to Sun Devils fans: Kohl, as in incoming true freshman Kody Kohl, brother of former starter Trevor. He has room to fill out his frame at just 220 pounds, but has good athleticism and speed to eventually develop into a receiving threat. Walk-on redshirt freshman Alex Bykovskiy has a shorter build and projects as a depth player.