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ASU Football: New-look receiving corps faces mix of challenges, opportunities

Faced wiith challenges and several holes to address, ASU will look to DJ Foster and a group of young, athletic wideouts to contribute to the offense.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

There may not be a position group at Arizona State with more question marks heading into the season than the wide receivers. With Jaelen Strong gone to the NFL and Cameron Smith lost for the season due to a knee injury, an inexperienced group is now thrust into the spotlight in a pass-happy Pac-12 conference.

ASU wide receivers coach DelVaughn Alexander is no stranger to this. Prior to coming to ASU in 2012, Alexander spent five seasons coaching the wide receivers at Wisconsin. He has also coached at USC and Oregon State.

"It's the same as it is every year. Somebody has to graduate, somebody has to leave and the guys that haven't had a lot of opportunities have to step up," Alexander said. "When Jaelen decides to leave a guy takes it on himself to say 'I have to be be better' there is a world of opportunity. That is why D.J. moves over to wide receiver because there is a lot of opportunity for him."

This time last season, D.J. Foster was bulking up in anticipation of carrying the load in the ASU backfield. Foster rushed for 1,081 yards in 2014, however with the emergence of freshmen Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage, the ASU coaching staff moved the playmaker to wide receiver for his senior season.

"This is his senior year, he could have easily said 'Coach I've done all of this stuff already, I just want to sit back and watch a little bit,'" said Alexander. "But he has come in like a junior college player or a transfer, he has been dedicated to his craft daily."

Foster is no stranger to catching the football. Over his first three years in Tempe, he has amassed 162 receptions for 1,874 yards and 11 touchdowns. Foster has been ASU's second-leading receiver the past two seasons.

However, a new position creates a new look for the Scottsdale, Ariz., native. Foster, who is used to primarily beating linebackers for receptions, will now be facing more coverage from cornerbacks and safeties.

"It's a lot more technical. The guys (defensive backs) are a lot smarter, they care going to be more patient," Alexander said. "Linebackers are not going to be patient, they are going to be more aggressive whereas defensive backs are going to be more patient and react to what you give them.

"He has to play fast but at the same time he can't show his hand. There is a lot of finesse play on the perimeter and he can use that to his advantage."

Another new face is Devin Lucien, who caught 29 passes for 225 yards in 2014 for UCLA. Lucien is a graduate transfer who is eligible immediately and has been working with the first team offense.

"We concentrate on everything around here. If was just X's and O's it would have been a lot easier than it has been but he has done a great job embracing the philosophy on the field," Alexander said. "As far as what we are doing everyday in camp, he is starting to come on strong."

There are two more newcomers to the group. Freshman wide receiver Terrell Chapman wears No. 21 and has the look of Strong (6-foot-3, 190 pounds). He has been hampered by an injury during training camp but has turned some heads. Junior college transfer Tim White has turned a lot of heads during training camp, however a wrist injury has kept him sidelined most of the past week.

Both players show potential, but the transition to major college football presents many challenges.

"The one that gets used the most is the speed of the game. After getting adjusted to the speed of the game, now it's how physically demanding it is," said Alexander. "You have to respond everyday, we may have put together 14 practices with one day off and that is hard for a guy coming out of high school, especially if you were a star player you probably haven't practiced as if you are playing a game.

"Everyday is game day and you have to respond like that over the course of two weeks."

There are some familiar names in the group as well. Gary Chambers, Ellis Jefferson and Fred Gammage all caught at least 10 passes in 2014. Tyler Whiley and Eric Lauderdale may also hop into the mix after redshirting last season.

"What's been amazing this year is the versatility that we have. From Devin, Ellis, D.J. Gary, Tim White, there are so many options," said quarterback Mike Bercovici. "They are a very aggressive unit, our most competitive group on the field is that wide receiver group. Everybody is going to touch the ball, it is going to be exciting."

Alexander says he would like to have five to six guys in the rotation at wide receiver. In the open portion of practice recently, Foster, Lucien and De'Chavon "Gump" Hayes were running with the first time. Chambers, Jefferson, White, Gammage, Chapman, Lauderdale and Whiley are all jockeying for those final spots.

"We will have five guys, we will have six guys. It is just a matter of a couple of guys getting over injuries and things that have been bugging them for a little while," Alexander said. "We will still be deep. We will be fine when the time comes."

The questions surrounding the wide receivers should be answered in a big way on Sept. 5 when the Sun Devils play Texas A&M.