It's hard to run a high octane, fast-paced, rhythm-based, offense when you don't have any wide receivers to work with. Still, Todd Graham, Mike Norvell and the rest of the Sun Devil staff found a way in 2012 by making the most out of their limited resources. So when they threw some warm bodies in the fold in 2013, there was nowhere to go but up, right?
2013 Expectations: In 2012, tight end Chris Coyle led Arizona State in both receptions and receiving yards despite entering the season with only six career receptions. No. 3 and 4 on ASU's final receiving yards list were the second and third string running backs. Rashad Ross, labeled as Arizona State's top big play threat entering the season, did finish with the second most yards (610) but had less touchdowns than a man who has never naturally played the wide receiving position before (Marion Grice).
How's that for a sorry state of affairs?
Even so, Taylor Kelly still tossed a career-best 29 touchdowns and never did the Sun Devil offense seem to be starved for points. But with Grice needed at running back with Cameron Marshall graduating and Ross and Jamal Miles set to move on too, it was clear that the patchwork positional job at wide receiver could not carry over for another year.
So Graham did what any good college coach would do and brought in an influx of talent. And he hit the jackpot with one Jaelen Strong.
2013 Production: Let's take a moment to reflect on all the hype surrounding Jaelen Strong last August. Now, let's take another moment to appreciate that fact that he still managed to obliterate any and all lofty expectations.
It was as if Arizona State fans bought a nice BMW at a reasonable price but when they went to pick it up, they discovered it was actually the Batmobile.
Strong wasted no time proving he was one of the best unknown commodities in the nation, ripping off five consecutive 100-yard games from Week 2 to Week 6. In Week 3, he burned Stanford's All-American quality secondary to the tune of 12 catches and 168 yards (both season-highs). And he did it all despite no true decoy on the other side of him.
Strong would have a far larger final stat line if he wasn't hobbled by an ankle injury. He ended up playing through the ailment but he was essentially on the field to pull coverage as his route tree was undeniably diminished.
Once healthy, Strong ended up bouncing back in the final three games of the regular season with 339 yards and two touchdowns. Oddly, he wasn't much of a factor in either the Pac-12 Championship or the Holiday Bowl. But by then, he had already done more than enough to earn All-Pac-12 second-team honors.
After Foster, Grice and Coyle, former walk on Kevin Ozier was Arizona State's next best receiving threat. While Ozier was hardly a consistent contributor, he was the type of player who stepped up whenever the Devils seemingly needed him the most. When Strong first went down against Washington, Ozier had his finest performance of 2013 (eight catches, 88 yards). Through the rest of the season, he only had one game with more than two catches.
The only other Sun Devil receiver to finish the year with more than 10 receptions was Richard Smith. After battling a bad case of butterfingers earlier in the season, Smith seemed to slowly recover his confidence as the season went on. His hands are still far from reliable and he does have some ball security issues to boot but Smith can definitely be considered a building block heading into 2014, along with fellow youngsters Ellis Jefferson, Cam Smith and Frederick Gammage.
One of those gentlemen will surely need to rise to the occasion next season to take some of the heat off of Strong. Sun Devil fans should be crossing their fingers for Jefferson, a physical specimen in the mold of Strong who would give Kelly two towering target monsters to work with.
Who is returning in 2014?
Jaelen Strong: 75 receptions, 1,122 (team-high), seven receiving touchdowns (team-high)
Richard Smith: 32 receptions, 276 yards, two receiving touchdowns, seven rushing attempts, 78 yards
Cameron Smith: eight receptions, 129 yards
Frederick Gammage: six receptions, 32 yards
Who is leaving?
Kevin Ozier (senior): 23 receptions, 354 yards, one touchdown
Alonzo Agwuenu (senior): one reception, eight yards
Joe Morris (senior): No statistics registered
Kyle Middlebrooks (senior): No statistics registered