Already having to fill the gaping void Jaelen Strong left when he decided to declare for the NFL Draft this season, the Arizona State receiving corps took another hit with ASU head coach Todd Graham announcing on Tuesday that junior wide receiver Cameron Smith is out for the season after having knee surgery.
“It was very unusual injury to the knee,” Graham said, not wanting to go into specifics. “It wasn’t an ACL (ligament tear), wasn’t anything like that. It was one of those acute things that happened and just never could get it better.”
Smith played through last season while bothered by the injury and after consulting with several doctors elected to have the surgery, Graham said. Smith will redshirt and it is projected to be a seven to eight month recovery time.
“I feel like we were going into a game and one of our guys is down and everybody has to step up and fill in,” ASU wide receivers coach DelVaughn Alexander said. “There’s no special sense of urgency, there’s just demeanor that everybody has to handle their business, take care of their job and perform that’s with or without one of the guys that we may or may not have in a given week.”
Last year, Smith was a vital contributor to the offense alongside Strong. Smith had six touchdowns on the season and averaged 14.5 yards per catch. This season, he was projected to be a key veteran starter in the receiving core.
Despite the setback, Alexander said Smith is in a great frame of mind as he sits out the upcoming season.
“Everybody has been supportive and calling and texting and trying to keep in touch with him and it’s just a matter of time before he’s back out here around and being in tune with what we’re doing,” Alexander said.
The loss of Smith, in addition to the departure of Strong, and ASU missing on out several highly touted wide receiver recruits including Trent Irwin and Christian Kirk in the 2015 recruiting class has the program in a challenged spot at the position.
ASU only brings in one true wide receiver recruit this season, Terrell Chatman.
Chatman is rated four-stars by Scout.com after playing at Central High School in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and is 6-foot-3, 189 pounds. Chatman will arrive in the fall.
Other ASU wide receivers that are left to fill the gaps are senior wide receiver convert D.J. Foster, senior returning starter Gary Chambers, sophomore Ellis Jefferson, junior Fred Gammage, junior Eric Lauderdale, redshirt freshmen Jalen Harvey and Tyler Whiley.
“Everybody has got to step their game up, especially at the receiving core,” Foster said. “It’s a big loss. Cam was a huge part of our offense last year and especially losing Jaelen, that’s more responsibility for us at receiver.”
The positive for ASU is while Strong is gone and Smith is out, Foster, who spent his first three years at ASU listed as a running back, has been impressive in his first several practices as a full time wide receiver.
Last season, Foster racked up 688 yards receiving, second–most on the team, averaging 11.1 yards per catch in addition to his role as the team's primary running back.
After deciding to stay his senior year at ASU and talking with NFL scouts, Foster said he decided he sees himself as more of a receiver and that’s why he wants to learn as much as he can right now so he can go onto the NFL with that skill set in his pocket.
“It’s definitely kind of a new world out there,” Foster said in regards to the difference in preparation to play running back versus receiver. “I mean, a lot of stuff I haven’t done, but a lot of the terminology and just learning the different verbiage at receiver, going against corners instead of 250-pound linebackers. It’s a different game but I mean coach Alexander, all my receivers, Ellis (Jefferson), Gary (Chambers), all of them are just doing a good job helping me with this transition.”
Graham said that since Smith would have played in the 9-spot (boundary receiver, where Strong played last year), Foster is now going to be spending most of his practice time there.
“He (Foster) and I spend a lot of time together,” Alexander said. “He’s willing to invest the time in perfecting his craft there so just watching him in the classroom and watching his eyes and his demeanor, I think he’s really trying to take a step to be an impact player every down.”
Foster said he is more comfortable playing in the slot, but understands the coaches just want him to get accustomed to all different positions.
“What D.J. (Foster) brings is catch and then the show begins,” senior quarterback Mike Bercovici said. “You get the ball in his hands and then he makes plays happen. He can turn five yards into 50 yards and on top of that he has some of the best hands on the team.”
Along with Foster breaking out into his new role, Jefferson is another wide receiver looking to make an impact receiving this season.
Jefferson also typically plays in the 9-reciver spot and got to learn all last year behind Strong, but hasn’t gotten his chance to step into the limelight just yet.
“It’s been a grind for him (Jefferson),” Alexander said. “He’s trying not to make the simple mistakes so now he’s just trying to make all the plays but continue to improve his fundamentals. I think he’s really fundamentally grown, now he’s just going to be that playmaker that we can use on the field on a regular basis.”
Jefferson said over the offseason he gained some weight, added muscle and really focused on getting his release stronger and his eye coordination on point.
Since Jefferson, Bercovici, Foster are roommates, in addition to senior safety Jordan Simone, Jefferson said he and Foster and Bercovici all go over installs together in their spare time and they all try to help each other get comfortable and learn the techniques.
With so many players trying to find their roles in the receiving group, a lot of shuffling will be happening throughout the spring and don’t expect the changes to stop there.
“What we do come fall could very easily change because we are diverse, because we are multiple,” Alexander said. “Those things aren’t defined. They may be defined more by play than players.”