ASU Football Recruiting: Wide receiver becomes a position of strength

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

In Todd Graham's first year with the Sun Devils, a tight end led Arizona State in receptions. Pretty soon, that will be a distant memory.

When Todd Graham and Mike Norvell arrived at Arizona State, they announced that a power running game in a spread scheme would help the Sun Devils become one of the nation's premier offenses.

Over the past two years, Cameron Marshall, Marion Grice and D.J. Foster have helped make that dream a reality for the Sun Devils, as Arizona State has averaged at least 38 points per game in each of the first two seasons under the new staff.

Graham and Norvell have helped turn the Sun Devils into a quick-strike, up-tempo attack that thrives on the big play and keeping opponents off balance. In 2014, that trend should continue. But now, it's the passing game that will be responsible for many of those highlight-reel plays.

In the fall of 2014, the coaching staff will have plenty of new toys to play with, including recent wide receiver signees Eric Lauderdale, Jalen Harvey, and Tyler Whiley.

All three of the players listed above have the potential to contribute in this offense next season, and all three are players that opposing coaches have to account for in their game plans.

While Graham and Norvell entered Arizona State hoping to establish a dominant running attack, they made that an immediate goal because it was a necessity. Simply put, the Sun Devils were depleted at wide receiver.

In 2012, the Sun Devils lined up Jamal Miles and Rashad Ross as their starting wide receivers with a first-year quarterback in Taylor Kelly. Miles was an above-average return specialist who struggled to create separation in the secondary, while Ross was a speed threat who couldn't be counted on as a possession receiver.

Ultimately, Kelly was forced to rely on tight end Chris Coyle (57 catches) and running backs Marion Grice (41 catches) and D.J. Foster (38 catches) to become targets A, B, and C on any given play. For a team with Rose Bowl aspirations, lacking an every down playmaker at wide receiver is a fatal flaw.

After relying on the running game to carry the Sun Devils to an 8-5 record, Arizona State did what it does best on the recruiting trail and hit the junior college ranks to find a starting receiver.

In 2013, the Sun Devils hit the goldmine with Jaelen Strong, a tall, athletic and physical target who doesn't need separation to be "open." In fact, some of Strong's best receptions last season came when Kelly simply lobbed up the ball along the sideline and let Strong go and get it. Strong finished his inaugural season with 75 catches, 1,122 yards and seven touchdowns and helped transform Arizona State from a one-dimensional offense to a balanced scheme.

This offseason, Graham and Norvell continued to scour for junior college talent and came across Saddleback Community College receiver Eric Lauderdale. Lauderdale had offers from Florida, Nebraska and Oregon, but chose to come to Arizona State with the goal of contributing right away. And after watching Strong last season, it's hard to blame him.

On Signing Day, Graham was elated to receive Lauderdale's National Letter of Intent because it allows the Sun Devils to spread the field and keeps opposing defenses from locking in on Strong.

"One of the top junior college wide receivers, dynamic player, a guy that will allow us to ‑‑ I think will be a great tandem with Jaelen, and a guy that really has big play explosive capabilities," Graham said of Lauderdale.

Last fall, Strong sealed up a starting job by the end of Camp Tontozona, and it would come as a fairly significant surprise if Lauderdale doesn't do the same this season. He has the quickness to play in the slot, the speed to cause trouble in the open field, and the additional experience that makes him an asset to the receiving corps right away.

While Strong is the only 2013 recruit at receiver who has truly bursted onto the scene, plenty of his "classmates" are poised to add to the offensive firepower.

Cameron Smith, an unheralded wide receiver out of Coppell High School in Texas, caught eight passes as a true freshman last season. Ellis Jefferson and Ronald Lewis, the other 2013 receiver recruits, are two players that Graham spoke highly of throughout the season as well.

The 2013 recruits have a tough task ahead of them if they want to break into the lineup, though, because a flourishing Arizona State offense attracted a pair of 4-star standouts from high school for the class of 2014.

Jalen Harvey and Tyler Whiley both have the athleticism to earn playing time as true freshmen, and each player brings different attributes to the offense.

Harvey is 6-foot-2 and brings a rare level of physicality that is hard to find in wide receivers in the high school ranks. Harvey's highlight film is full of tremendous catches that require intense focus, but what excites Graham the most about the California native is his blocking ability.

"We want speed and explosiveness, but you also have to block on the perimeter, and Jalen is going to provide great physicality to our receivers," Graham said.

Eric Lauderdale might have the followed the same path as Jaelen Strong to Arizona State, but Graham believes that Harvey resembles Strong more closely because of their body types and their abilities to go up and catch the ball at the highest point.

"Looks and appears a lot the same body type as a Jaelen Strong, a lot of the same abilities, and Jalen was a guy that was very highly recruited," Graham said.

As for Whiley, the major recruiting services surmised that he has the versatility to play on both sides of the ball in college. At Chaparral High School, Whiley played just about every position on the field and Graham hasn't ruled out shifting him around at Arizona State.

Still, when considering how the receiving unit stacked up when Graham arrived to how it looks now, it's difficult to keep players who project as potential wideouts away from that side of the football.

"Inevitably we'll evaluate him and put him in the best place for us to win," Graham said of Whiley. "He was very open to either one, but it's very hard for us when we got down to it just not to put the ball in his hand."

For Graham and Norvell, tracking Whiley's progress and improvements during the first two seasons of his career could be critical to the success of recruiting future Sun Devils from Arizona. Graham is anxious to keep more of the top talent in the state at home and for him to do that, giving potential recruits another example of a player who excelled early in his career is a surefire strategy.

"Tremendous young man that has really ‑‑ so proud of him in kind of the same regard as I am of DJ Foster, a guy that could have went anywhere," Graham said. "He said, Coach, why would I go anywhere elsewhere you can win championships right here in the Valley?"

Recruiting a player with Whiley's character and his commitment to his local university is a thrilling pickup for the Sun Devil coaching staff. With Whiley, Harvey and Lauderdale, the Sun Devils have transformed their receiving corps from one of the team's greatest question marks to one of its deepest units in just two full years.

In 2014, Graham and Norvell no longer have to focus on cultivating an offense built solely around a power running game and a quick passing attack. The coaching staff now has the weapons to become one of the most varied offenses in the nation, and moving forward, that's exactly what Arizona State should expect.

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