Last season, passes were flying through the air like never before. The Sun Devils threw the ball a school-record 527 times in 2011, and nearly all of them went to wide receivers.
Of the team's 333 receptions a year ago, wide receivers accounted for 284 (this counts Jamal Miles as a wide receiver, which was his official position listing, despite his many swing passes out of the backfield). The combined receptions by running backs and tight ends (49) accounted for just 15% of the team's total, and the non-wide receiver's 369 yards were just a mere 9%.
Needless to say, when the Sun Devils lost the likes of Gerell Robinson, Aaron Pflugrad and Mike Willie, major concerns were raised at the position. While the players the team had in their 2012 plans had talent, their cumulative production and experience left a lot of room for questions heading into the season.
While it's still early, the team is no closer to anything resembling a definitive answer, and that uncertainty is reflected in the numbers.
So far in 2012, the team's leading pass catchers are 3-back Chris Coyle (12 catches) and running back DJ Foster (seven). As a whole, the team has posted 39 catches for 567 yards in two games. Of those, the wide receivers have managed just 15 receptions for 215 yards, with each figure accounting for just 38% of the team's production.
While part of that fall is due to the new offense that utilizes tight ends and backs to a much greater degree than in ASU's recent past, much of the shortcomings are performance based. That is a fact that Todd Graham pointed out earlier this week.
"We got to have guys step up at wide receiver," Graham said on Tuesday. "We got to get better at that position. That seems to be the one that lacks the most leadership."
While the meaning of first two sentences is clear to all, it's the last portion that strikes a chord.
With the loss of those key players, not only was productivity lost but also a great deal of leadership, yet that's not to say that there are not several current players who are capable of filling that void.
Miles, a senior coming off a 60-catch season, is the one that figures should have embraced a leadership role. However, he missed the season opener due to his suspension, the second straight game dating back to last December's Maaco Bowl, that he missed for disciplinary reasons. Being perhaps the most talented player in the group, the team needs him both on the field and in the locker room, and the jury is still out on both counts. MIles showed life on Saturday, catching three passes for 54 yards, including a nice 41-yard gain.
Other experienced players among the two-deep at the position are seniors A.J. Pickens and Rashad Ross, and juniors Kyle Middlebrooks, Kevin Ozier and J.J. Holliday. Of this group, Ozier is tied for the team lead with five receptions and Ross and Holliday each have one. That's it.
While the rise of Coyle into one of the top tight ends in the conference is a major boost, and ASU's talented backfield have shown they can contribute in the passing game, the team needs a few of their wide receivers to produce. Quickly.
It won't be long before teams are able to game plan defensively to neutralize Coyle and the backs. Should no consistent threats develop outside nor downfield, the success ASU's passing game has had over the first two games will evaporate.
This week will be a difficult challenge for the group to have a breakout game.
Missouri's secondary is very experienced and talented, led by one of the nation's elite cornerbacks in E.J. Gaines. They have a duo of athletic safeties in Kenronte Walker and Brandon Webb that can cover along the seams, and with a tenacious front seven pressuring quarterback Taylor Kelly, reliable targets will need to get open.
Arizona State's season has thus far exceeded all expectations, and the team is now firmly a bowl contender, thanks in large part to their offense. In order to keep that momentum and success going in the coming weeks, their wide receivers will need to lend their hands.