N'Keal Harry is going to be your favorite skill player in 2016, 2017, 2018 -- and, for the sake of Arizona State Sun Devils football -- 2019.
Harry was the top ranked 2016 recruit out of Arizona, and with the departure of three of ASU's top-four receivers from a season ago, he is expected to immediately walk into Sun Devil Stadium and serve as the No. 1 target for the team.
Yes, we've read, and read, and read about it. But, while each of those pieces refer to the obvious talent and size Harry possesses -- he's at least 6-foot-3, 200-plus pounds and runs an estimated 4.60 40-yard dash -- his physical attributes and apparent talent are not the lone reasons we can expect him to thrive.
The system in which he'll be incorporated and the alignments he can potentially be used in should excite Sun Devil fans just as much as anything.
Pitting best players in the best position possible
New ASU offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey primarily draws influences from three coaches: former Southern Miss head coach Todd Monken, Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn and former Troy head coach Larry Blakenley.
Malzahn, an offensive mastermind, (and probably his biggest influence) is touted as one of the great minds of the current era. He is a proponent of aligning a team's best players in the best position possible for success. Lindsey's philosophy extends from this school of thought, as did his predecessor's, Mike Norvell.
How similar is your offense to what Mike Norvell was already running at ASU?
Lindsey: It's the same. It's the same identical deal. Obviously, each offense it built around your players, but the skill set of our players at Southern Miss -- our quarterbacks, some of the receivers -- was a little bit different than here, but it's the same system and we're going to run the same schemes and tailor it to fit our personnel.
Tailoring his offense to best fit the skillset of his personnel suggests that we'll be seeing Harry used in multiple spots. Simply put, he'll either be the split-end out wide (also, ‘X' - denoted ‘9' in Lindsey's terminology) or play flanker (denoted as a ‘2'), which is featured both out wide and in the slot in the Lindsey offense.
Out of the Slot
Remember Jaelen Strong? In his second season at ASU, Strong logged the most yards per route run out of the slot alignment of any receiver in the entire country (4.06).
Why is this important?
It's a recent example of ASU reinforcing the ideology of utilizing a team's best player where they're the most effective.
Although Strong's usage from the slot came under the direction of Norvell, philosophically, this is nothing new to the ASU coaching staff, specifically within the last decade.
It began with former ASU head coach Dennis Erickson, who was an early pioneer for the slot-back alignment utilizing an offense's best player.
"We put our best receiver and player at the Slot Back position. People who try to stay in a regular defense and not play the Nickle or Dime coverages have mismatches trying to cover the Slot Back with a run defensive player. Everything in our passing game is based on trying to get the slot in a One on One situation. The running game is the same. We take the run defender and put him in space with the Slot Back where he has to cover more ground."
Norvell carried the torch, making his most dangerous playmakers a threat to opposing defenses via the slot-back alignment.
Now, when you think "slot back," you probably think of smaller, receiver-back type players like D.J. Foster, but this ideology is consistent regardless of stature.
In modern football, at all levels, we see teams utilize their best offensive weapons in positions where coaches feel they are the most effective. As aforementioned, Lindsey is a proponent of this philosophy, and there's proof he's put his best playmakers in that position before.
There's no guarantee that we see Harry lined up exclusively from the slot by any means, but it shouldn't surprise anyone if and when he's deployed there either, should he prove to be effective.
Last season, Lindsey boasted a receiver who nearly hauled in 1,400 yards to go with an Division I-leading 19.6 yards per catch (min. 65 receptions) and 14 touchdowns in Michael Thomas (draft profile).
At 6-foot-1, 186 pounds, Thomas didn't possess the prototypical size of a Malzahn X/9, but Lindsey's play-calling helped allow him to get open -- often.
Thomas notably led the country in receiving yards on slant routes with 274.
Southern Miss WR Michael Thomas led the nation with 274 yards on slant routes. Caught 11, averaged 19.6 yards/reception— PFF College (@PFF_College) February 13, 2016
Considering his size and the fact Lindsey has said before that he views Tim White as being a playmaker (most likely as a flanker/2), one can figure Harry will see most of his duties be tied to the role of the X/9, meaning he should assume fairly similar route patterns to that of Thomas.
This also means Harry will take on an amount of blocking responsibilities, too.
"I love run-blocking. A lot of people don't know that about me. Ask any of my coaches. I love blocking, I love hitting."
- N'Keal Harry
A common misconception is that the spread offense is a pass-first, pass-heavy philosophy, however everything that occurs in the system is set up through the run.
Blocking out wide isn't crucial, but it is important, according to Malzahn.
"The 9 also must be a decent enough blocker to keep the backside cornerback or safety from making the tackle on running plays."
- Gus Malzahn
The fact Harry is willing to take on this role is nice to hear. Still, make no mistake -- Harry is going to be used as a receiver much more than a blocker.
When asked to deliver a self-scouting report on the Speak of the Devils episode, he said he has good speed for his size. We don't expect him to be used solely as a deep threat, but really, all we need to be aware of is that he's pretty damn good at serving in that role and just about every other duty associated with playing out wide.
To echo the pieces before mine lauding his talent, his combination of size, speed, strength and athleticism enables him to immediately serve as a team's No. 1 target. Although, whose No. 1 target Harry will serve as is still yet to be determined.
Nonetheless, the coupling of an up-and-coming offensive genius with a sensational talent is more than enough reason to remain optimistic and couldn't have formed at a better time for ASU.
This could very well be the beginning of something very special.