Q&A with DelVaughn Alexander

While Jaelen Strong's performance has markedly improved Arizona State's wide receiver production this past season, it is still a group that last year and going into 2014 is in search for other players to step up. We caught up with Sun Devils' wide receivers coach, DelVaughn Alexander, to discuss the unit's performance in 2013 and how its new additions can elevate this group this in the fall.

DevilsDigest: The wide receivers group is one unit that has done very well in the 2014 recruiting class. Let's discuss the three additions to this position, starting with four-star junior college transfer, Eric Lauderdale

DelVaughn Alexander: "Eric has a lot of the characteristics of some of the guys that we already have here. What I'm looking for this year in terms of increased production is a guy that will do something with the ball after he catches it in terms of making people miss, shedding tackles, making plays after contact and creating longer runs after the catch. You see him do that in his highlights so that is what I hope he brings to the table and is also a need for improvement for the entire group."

DevilsDigest: You added another four-star wide receiver, this time a local high school star in Scottsdale's Chaparral's Tyler Whiley. What are his attributes?

DelVaughn Alexander: "One thing about Tyler is that he can play both ways, which means that he has a high football I.Q. and I also know that by sitting down with him on a number of occasions and I think he will learn the offense pretty quick. So I'm looking forward to him just being very tough and very physical, bring that defensive mentality to the position and at the same time making the tough catch.

"We really haven't talked about him playing defensive back. Tyler really hasn't settled in on where he sees himself playing but we recruited him to play on offense. We are open to both and once he gets into camp we will know more."

DevilsDigest: Jalen Harvey is another newcomer from the high school ranks who can play defensive back…

DelVaughn Alexander: "I got my fingers crossed that I can keep both at wide receiver. But he's a tough guy who wants to score touchdowns and doesn't mind tackling people which is great. But he will start at wide receiver too and we are going to get him ready to play there and see where it goes. He can also be a returner and is a tough wide receiver. He has the attitude and mentality that he won't be stopped, and what whatever is in front of him he can get to the other side and score a touchdown. Very tough minded and hard working kid that really loves football."

DevilsDigest: 2012 was a rough season for the wide receivers group, but last year's performance was improved. How would you rate the 2013 season for the unit?

DelVaughn Alexander: "They were pretty good. I'm a coach and I will always be tough on the players. But we were a lot more successful. There were some things we could have done better, but also some things we have done very well. We had a good season as a team and now we are resetting those goals and resetting the bar in terms of winning the Pac-12 and wining the Rose Bowl. Those are the things we have to do better.

"We had a guy who had over a 1,000 yards receiving and that is one of those minimum standards for the offense and we can say that we have that. We were an improved blocking team. I can count the penalties we had on one hand at our position. We had one turnover. So we were doing some things at a higher level and production went up from one year to the next."

DevilsDigest: You talked about having a player, namely Jaelen Strong, who had a 1,000 yards receiving. Obviously he came with extremely high accolades but just like any newcomer had to go through the inevitable learning curve. Did he meet or exceed your expectations?

DelVaughn Alexander: "He played as well as we thought he would play. As a first-year player he had some highs, some lows, had an injury…things that you expect to happen. But talent wise he was what we expected. So all we tried to do is manage the transition and let him adjust to some of the coaching and use his talent so he can succeed. So everything was on course and now it's time for him to take it to the next level."

DevilsDigest: What are some of Strong's skills that you have seen the biggest improvement in?

DelVaughn Alexander: "When you understand the playbook better and you get a better sense of the competition you play faster and perform better. Defensive recognition was much improved. Conditioning from the beginning of the season until the end was obviously better. He dealt with adversity as a first-year player being injured. So towards the end of the season when you get some of those nicks and bruises, he was able to fight through those. I thought he did a very good job blocking all year but he has to have better physical technique. It's not one of the most rough and tough positions on the field, but you have to have a tough mentality because this is still football. So being technically physical, he can do a much better job there."

DevilsDigest: It's naturally very hard to pull out the crystal ball and predict a newcomer's performance but having now a player in Lauderdale who has a skill level very comparable to Strong – how do you see that tandem working out making the passing game that much more explosive this year?

DelVaughn Alexander: "We lost a big time playmaker in Marion Grice, as well as Chris Coyle and you are only bringing in one Eric Lauderdale. So you are just trying to fill in one of those playmaking voids. So with both of them playing this year along with other players your offense still gets to be explosive like we have been."

DevilsDigest: Richard Smith's roller coaster of a season has been well documented. How you rate his play in 2013?

DelVaughn Alexander: "I'd say he was playing at about 70-75 percent and that is something we talked about. Ric wasn't able to redshirt and has been fighting to get better every single day. You could see some growth, some of the struggles and he has something to build on."

DevilsDigest: Cameron Smith was thrown into the fire as a true freshman and had some good moments here and there. What did you see from him in his first year?

DelVaughn Alexander: "He got very limited chances and you wanted to see more and you hoped for more from him, but that was hard with all the other playmakers we had. He played at a true freshman level and they were things that he had never done before in terms of our tempo. They were things that he had never seen before in terms of coverages and adjustments. But you don't get to learn those things when you are redshirting – that's for sure. He has put on some weight in the off-season and you want his mentality to be different as we get to fall camp. But as of now I can see him doing great things for us with that experience that he has got."

DevilsDigest: Ellis Jefferson was a true freshman that started out fall camp very strong. Looked like he wasn't going to redshirt but a leg injury in camp really slowed him down…was that really the only factor that took him out of consideration of playing early?

DelVaughn Alexander: "It was. We talked about the transition and the other things that a new player goes through, but we still really wanted to play Ellis and his injury didn't let him get over the hump. So since he wasn't able to compete at a high level, we didn't want to waste that year knowing we had just enough (at wide receiver) to get us through the season.

"His size is obviously a great advantage and he is smart as a whip. He has great leadership qualities. In the spring we are going to move guys all over the place and we are going to teach these guys a lot about the offense because we want to be as multiple as possible in the fall. So with the changeups these guys have to learn, the sky is the limit for a player like Ellis."

DevilsDigest: Ronald Lewis redshirting was probably not a surprise, but what was the thought process there?

DelVaughn Alexander: "Ronald is physical enough and fast enough to play the position, but at the same time he was at a spot where we really didn't have to play him because his skill set was similar to D.J. (Foster), Cameron and Ric. But it was tough redshirting him and we had injuries late in the year, and even as late as the Arizona game Ronald told us: ‘if you need me, I'm ready to go.' That's the type of person and player that he is – he will do anything to get on the field."

DevilsDigest: As we go through all the wide receivers you see the talent but also see a lot of inexperience. How does that factor affect your approach both in spring practice and later on in fall camp?

DelVaughn Alexander: "We aren't going change anything with our scheme because of the inexperience. We recruited players that are smart, gym rats and guys that can handle a lot of information. So schematically we are full go but you also have to be smart about that. There are also a lot of the tricks of the trade you can teach these young guys. We know that we want to get better over last year and we are going full throttle on that."

DevilsDigest: Do you feel that a group that was so dependent on Strong's performance will be more diverse in its contributions this year?

DelVaughn Alexander: "The thing is that when you talk about production in the passing game you have to throw in guys like D.J., Chris and Marion into the equation. We are using all of our weapons and a lot of times it's using the running back and a tight end as a receiver. So yes, at times it looks as if Jaelen is the only wide receiver making plays, but you have to look at the receptions D.J. had when you look at production from the wide receiver production.

"So with our first-year players we are looking to spread the ball more around. If you have a player that the other team can't stop, then sure you continue to feed the ball to that player. But we always want to have everybody in the group be productive."

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