Hill. Jefferson. McDonald. Hagan. Robinson.
Throughout Arizona State's history, the Sun Devils have consistently produced prolific wide receivers. No matter the era, someone in maroon-and-gold was usually making an impact downfield.
But for essentially two quarters in the bowl game, that didn't happen at all in 2012.
Following the departures of Gerell Robinson, Aaron Pflugrad and Mike Willie, ASU's rebuilt wide receiving corps was a major disappointment in 2012. The group consistently struggled to get open down the field, battled drops throughout the year, and generally were a non-factor in far too many games.
Thankfully, the emergence of tight end Chris Coyle and the receiving skills of running backs Marion Grice and D.J. Foster compensated for the lack of a threat at the position. However, one still must wonder how much more explosive the 25th ranked ASU offense could have been with a consistent playmaker or two at wide receiver stretching defenses.
On the year, the ASU wide receivers combined for just 122 catches (44% of the team's total) and 1,583 yards (47%). However, when you factor in the players who are returning in 2013, those numbers plummet to disturbing levels: 47 receptions for 586 yards (324 of those by Kevin Ozier), with both figures representing about 17% of last year's passing game production.
Yikes. Or maybe not?
While the state of the position is indeed a concern, it also presents a tremendous opportunity for players in a talented group to emerge in 2013.
Last year's top two receivers—Rashad Ross and Jamal Miles—have moved on, and head coach Todd Graham aggressively addressed the position in the 2013 recruiting class, landing five players, including elite junior college prospect Jaelen Strong. However, none of those players will be on campus for spring practice, setting up an intriguing battle among a host of talented, but mostly inexperienced players.
- Kevin Ozier - 21 receptions, 324 yards, 5 TD
- Rick Smith - 14 receptions, 141 yards, 2 TD
- Alonzo Agwuenu - 11 receptions, 115 yards, 1 TD
- Kyle Middlebrooks - 1 reception, 6 yards
- Gary Chambers
- Josiah Blandin
The program loaded up on wide receivers in the 2013 class, with two junior college transfers and three true freshmen coming to Tempe. None of the five will be able to participate in spring practice, but many will be in a position to make a run at playing time this August.
- Jaelen Strong (junior college transfer)
- Joseph Morris (junior college transfer)
- Ellis Jefferson
- Ronald Lewis
- Cameron Smith
- Rashad Ross - 37 receptions, 610 yards 6 TD
- Jamal Miles - 37 receptions, 373 yards, 0 TD
- J.J. Holliday - 1 reception, 14 yards
- A.J. Pickens - 1 carry, 0 yards
- Karl Holmes
Keep an Eye On: Alonzo Agwuenu & Rick Smith
Agwuenu came to Tempe in 2012 after a prolific junior college career. There were some thoughts that he could grab a starting job last season, but he failed to make an impact through the first eight games, catching just three passes. Agwuenu began to see a more prominent role down the stretch, making eight receptions over his final four appearances, including his first career touchdown against Navy.
Agwuenu brings a very potent skillset to the Sun Devil lineup. He has a tremendous frame at 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds, and complements that with speed in the high 4.4s and reliable hands. With a year in the ASU offensive system, he is primed to become, as Graham hoped, a "big time deep threat for us" at the X position on the outside.
While Agwuenu will be bringing the big-bodied element to spring ball, his fellow 2012 signee Smith will look to become the explosive playmaker that Miles failed to be last year.
Standing in stark contrast to Agwuenu at 5-foot-9 and 164 pounds, Smith had five receptions and a touchdown in the season opener as a true freshman. he was unable to keep up that pace down the stretch, making just two grabs for 11 yards over the final six games.
Smith is, according to Graham, "a very dynamic player" that has "big play capabilities", and he should be the favorite to see the most time at the Z position during spring. His explosiveness and quickness could make him a lethal option out of the slot and on the occasional rushing attempt.
Biggest Strength: Size
Of the wide receivers who figure to compete for playing time in 2013, the average height is 6-foot-1 1/2, including six players at 6-foot-3 or taller. If nothing else, the Sun Devils will have plenty of big bodies.
Among the participants in spring ball, lone returning starter Kevin Ozier is 6-foot-2, with Josiah Blandin and Gary Chambers at 6-foot-3, with Agwuenu capping the group an inch higher. Come fall, a trio of 6-foot-4 players in Jaelen Strong, Joe Morris and Ellis Jefferson will join the squad.
With Coyle, Foster and Grice doing well in the short to intermediate ranges, the Sun Devils' height will at least give them a physical advantage to make play further along down the field.
Biggest Concern: Experience
As mentioned earlier, just 17% of last season's receiving production returns at the wide receiver position. There's no two ways about it—that is a major red flag, and a primary reason the team was aggressive in bringing in five newcomers to the position. For as uncertain as the position was after the loss of Robinson, Pflugrad and Willie, the group is even more cloudy this season.
Outside of the dependable Ozier (himself with just 10 career starts), the next most experienced player is Kyle Middlebrooks. The converted running back battled injuries and failed to make an impact in his 10 appearances last season, and is still looking to make good on his flashes of game-breaking promise from 2010. Gary Chambers has a nice size (6-foot-3) and speed blend, but is still searching for his first career catch in his third year in the program. Blandin has the height but a slender build, and will get a chance to prove himself this spring after spending last season redshirting.
What It All Means
Given the lack of a threat at the position, it is somewhat remarkable that Coyle had the record-setting season that he did, and that the ASU offense as a whole was as productive as it was.
With quarterback Taylor Kelly emerging as one of the Pac-12's best, it is imperative that ASU finds playmakers at wide receiver for him and to take the load and defensive attention off of Coyle, Foster and Grice.
Given the current situation, all of the players currently with the team will get a chance to shine and catch the coaching staff's eye during the 15 spring practices. With the five newcomers joining the team in August, any failure to do so may result in getting buried on the depth chart during the year.
2013 Spring Football Primer Series