The 2017 Arizona State football program will look very different than last year’s unit, at least from a coaching-personnel perspective.
The Sun Devils will have new coaches calling the plays on both offense and defense, will delegate responsibilities on both sides of the line of scrimmage to two new assistants, and will look to adjust recently developed schemes following the departure of multiple coaches.
While the hires of new offensive coordinator Billy Napier and new defensive coordinator Phil Bennett have been talked about and covered extensively, one of head coach Todd Graham’s acquisitions this offseason has flown under the radar.
The Sun Devils hired former Kansas offensive coordinator Rob Likens to lead the receiving corps, an area of the program that should draw interest as the season progresses.
Last year, it was no secret that the Devils relied heavily on two receivers: freshman N’Keal Harry and senior Tim White.
This dependence was so extreme, in fact, that the closest wideout to Harry yards-wise was Frederick Gammage, who finished 625 yards behind the freshman sensation and had less than half his amount of catches.
The absence of White will likely thrust the incoming-sophomore Harry into a leadership role in his second year, and during ASU football’s spring media day on Wednesday, Harry had much praise for the graduated White.
“He wasn’t a real vocal guy, but he did absolutely everything right,” Harry told House of Sparky. “He elevated everyone’s game.”
When Likens was asked about the departure of White and who he was looking into to fill his spot in the slot, he admitted to not being an expert on White’s game.
“I didn’t really watch much of the film from last year,” Likens said. “I do that on purpose when I go someplace new. I don’t like to have pre-conceived notions about people.”
This philosophy of adhering to his own first-impression rather than relying on film should prove vital to the unit’s success moving forward, as every position outside of Harry’s should realistically be up for grabs.
Likens emphasized a few key traits he’s looking for in his receiving corps, the first being an ability to make tough grabs.
“Obviously, as a receiver you have to have great ball skills, but not only that you have to come down with contested catches,” Likens said.
Last season, Harry demonstrated an obvious ability to do just that on countless occasions, but outside of him, Likens admitted, it’s difficult to say who will be able to do the same just yet.
“We’ll see what these guys can do in spring,” said the recently-added assistant. “We’ve had very little practice thus far.”
Another area Likens stated as crucial during Wednesday morning’s media session was route running and explosiveness off the line.
“I like to see guys that have quick lateral movement, it means you can get off press coverage,” he said.
While it’s difficult to determine who will step-up in this regard in 2017, redshirt sophomore and Texas transfer Ryan Newsome was confident in the strides he made last year.
“Route running, being crisp, being smooth, just being an overall complete player is what I really focused on this past season,” Newsome said. “So just being able to translate that to spring, I think, will really help me a lot.”
He also spoke fondly of Likens, specifically citing his dedication to players off the field.
“[He] really values family, and that’s something that ultimately I’m excited about,” Newsome said. “Somebody comes in that cares more than just about football, production in football field, but just how you’re doing in your life.”
Another newcomer vocal about his relationship with Likens on Wednesday was redshirt sophomore John Humphrey.
“He recruited me at Cal right out of high school, so it’s nice to have that relationship.” Humphrey said.
Humphrey, a 5-foot-11, 169-pound former Oklahoma signee runs a 4.20 40-yard dash, and should vie for significant snaps in the slot.
Although receiver depth is still being settled, Likens sounds confident ahead of his first spring session in Tempe.
“We got some size, some speed and some athleticism,” he said. “It’s kind of everything you would want to see out of a receiver group.”