If there has been one consistent theme for the Arizona State receiving corp over the past two years it's restocking.
Entering 2012, the Devils were forced to find a way to replace their top three receivers and their best three remaining receivers combed for just 784 the previous year. Fast forward to 2013 and things are looking even more desolate, at least statistically speaking. Rashad Ross and Jamal Miles, the top two yardage leaders at wide receivers from last year, are both gone while the remaining players at the position combined for a meager 586 yards as a whole.
But take a step back and look at the bigger picture.
The Sun Devils were actually 14th in the nation in points per game (38.4) and the aerial attack still averaged a respectable 259.2 yards per game. Even more encouraging is the fact that Taylor Kelly managed to finished tied for 16th in total passing touchdowns nationally. And that all happened with the cupboard essentially being bare from a wide receiver perspective.
Wait, so you're saying an already explosive offense has job openings at three pass-catching positions? No wonder ASU was so high on Joe Morris' list.
"That was the main pitch for me coming here," Morris said. "It's all in the media what is expected. But it's an open door and I'm happy I could come in and walk through it."
He wasn't the only one who saw opportunity and pounced either. The Devils signed five wide receivers in their 2013 recruiting class collectively, including the man who played on the other side of Morris at Pierce College, Jaelen Strong. But head coach Todd Graham knows more additions could just as easily mean more questions marks as it could more answers.
"The one thing about recruiting is that it's all on paper until the fall," said Graham. "But I think we got some guys our fans are going to be very excited about."
And with the release of Tuesday's depth chart, it seems that the new kids on the block will have a shot at bringing Sun Devil Stadium to their feet right from the first kickoff. Strong was named the Week 1 starter at X receiver ahead of senior Alonzo Agwuenu with freshman Cameron Smith listed as his immediate backup. At Y receiver, Kevin Ozier was given the job but freshman Ellis Jefferson's name resides directly below.
Same goes for Morris, who was listed as the co-second-stringer with Jefferson. But Morris is fighting an uphill battle for early playing time due to a left foot injury that kept him out of much of camp.
Fortunately, the red shirt junior is the type of competitor who will do whatever it takes to get playing time. And that's sure to get him in the coaching staff's good graces.
"I'm also a special teams advocate," Morris said. "I'm all over the place. I'm forcing myself to not leave the field very often."
While his mindset is encouraging, it's likely that Morris and the rest of his receiving mates will be in a heavy rotation purely because of the pace Graham wants to play.
When CTG first got to Tempe, he claimed it would take three years to get his roster up to the proper conditioning standards for the speed he desired on offense and defense. Graham does admit that this team is "ahead of schedule" but he also desires his "attack-oriented offense" to emulate what was on display in last season's finale against Navy. And that won't come easy for the unacclimated.
For those who forget, the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl was the epitome of big play efficiency for the Sun Devils. Before they began to politely lay on the brakes in the fourth quarter, ASU accumulated seven touchdown drives of at least 60 yards. During that same three quarter span, the Devils only saw third down three times and no drive lasted longer than 2:43.
It's okay, you can say wow now.
Although Graham realizes he won't be playing Swiss cheese defenses like that again with Stanford and Notre Dame on tap, he still would like to push his team even harder.
"[Last season], when we got into December and had a little time off to train them more, the tempo was faster," Graham said. "But we want to go even faster than that...the key is keeping them fresh and keeping the tempo going."
And while he may be new, Morris already realizes that the weapons are there to make that happen.
"We're stacked across the board at every position from quarterback to running back to the newly implemented receivers...and then we have Chris Coyle in the middle," said Morris with a chuckle of disbelief.
Don't worry Joe; we're just as excited as you.
Names to Know
Jaelen Strong - Redshirt Sophomore - 6'3", 205 pounds: Perhaps no new addition to the Sun Devil roster has been more hyped than Strong and for good reason. In his lone season at Pierce College, Strong turned his 67 catches into 1,263 receiving yards and 15 touchdowns. In his short time practicing with Arizona State though, he's been just as prone to disappear as to dazzle. To be fair, much of that has to do with his conditioning. Strong just became academically eligible on Aug. 9 so he wasn't on the same training regime that has so many Devils bulking up to the best shape of their life. His sub-4.4 speed and lanky frame should make him a factor early on but Alonzo Agwuenu is right behind him at X-receiver if he needs a breather or two.
Kevin Ozier - Redshirt Senior - 6'2", 200 pounds: Ozier may the longest tenured ASU wide receiver but he still earned his respect. As a former walk-on, his positional peers have seen his determination and now look to him as a leader. Yet there's no denying he has some talented youngins nipping at his heels for the Y-receiver role. The good news is many a Sun Devil has been singing his praise; TE Chris Coyle claimed he's been "catching everything that comes his way" in camp and Graham has gone out of his way to compliment his leadership on multiple occasions. There's little doubt Ozier will be given the opportunity to make an impact all season long. What remains to be seen is if his "starter" tag is nominal or not.
Richard Smith - Sophomore - 5'9", 172 pounds: Lose Jamal Miles and Jamal Miles' clone steps up in his place. Perhaps things are so bad after all in Sun Devil country. Smith shined in the opener against NAU last season, reeling in five catches for 45 yards and a touchdown but had a hard time finding meaningful snaps after that. Fortunately, his only real competition for slot targets this year are D.J. Foster and Chris Coyle so he is in a position to succeed. And that's not even including his game-breaking punt return potential, which is so immense that it earned him some chances in front of Miles himself last season. Expect this to be the year Smith proves he's more than a flash in a pan.
Ellis Jefferson - Freshman - 6'4", 207 pounds: The gem of this previous recruiting class just might turn out to be Jefferson. In the matter of a month, he went from relative unknown to a legitimate threat to steal Ozier's starting job. Simply put he's a physical specimen who has been playing like anything but a freshman. As long as he avoids mental mistakes, the potential of having two gargantuan pass catchers across from each other in Jefferson and Strong should be too juicy for Graham to deny. (On a side note, Doug Haller's article about Jefferson's journey to ASU from last week is a must-read).
Joe Morris - Junior - 6'2", 207 pounds: Morris' greatest attribute is his physicality and that's precisely what the Devils have lacked at the position since Gerell Robinson graduated. Unfortunately, his foot injury has allowed the other receivers to get a leg up on him in the early going (no pun intended). Still, Morris is the type of player that refuses to leave the field once he gets on it so don't expect it to be long before he's firmly in the rotation. He should start with special teams work to begin with but as one of the most polished pass catchers on ASU's roster, he has a realistic shot at finishing as a top-four receiver.