Camp Storyline: Wide Receiver Roles

How does Arizona State's wide receivers position group look like heading into preseason camp Wednesday. We look at all the options and handicap the race.

Arizona State lost its top 2015 wideout Jaelen Strong to the NFL Draft and its second-leading receiver Cameron Smith for the upcoming season due to knee surgery. Senior D.J. Foster's shift to the position from running back and the addition of UCLA post-graduate transfer Devin Lucien should help overcome those loses to some degree.

Still, there's a lot of moving parts here and some uncertainty heading into preseason camp that will be closely scrutinized.

Wide receivers coach Del Alexander has told us that he wants to have five players he can rely on going into any game week. Those are the guys who are going to see all of action. How they're used in terms of personnel groupings, formations and plays is going to depend on a lot of variables including: who those players end up being and their unique attributes; how competent ASU is at other positions, primarily tight end running back; and whom the opponent is ASU is playing and what its scheme and personnel entails.

For example, teams that have great talent and depth at running back and tight end and are as multiple as ASU is on offense won't need to use as many three and -- especially -- four wide receiver sets. With this 2015 ASU roster we know that running back is a strength, particularly when considering it would be easy to shift Foster back to the position. So that means we'll probably continue to see a lot of two-back formations in which one running back is essentially more of a wide receiver. ASU coach Todd Graham has even mentioned he'd like to get sophomores Demario Richard, Kaelen Ballage and junior De'Chavon Hayes -- and presumably Foster as well -- all on the field together.

This is probably even more so the case because tight end personnel isn't a strength, and neither is returning wide receiver talent. If Graham and offensive coordinator Mike Norvell had Strong and Smith on this team as well as two all-league caliber tight ends, and running back wasn't as much of a strength, they'd be able to play more single back formations that make use of the versatile 3-back position in different ways, and be in more two and three tight end formations and more three and four wide receiver sets.

ASU's system is very well designed in that he can play to its personnel strengths at the skill positions. Look no further than Graham's first season in Tempe, 2012, in which his top three leading pass catchers were a tight end (Chris Coyle) and two running backs (Marion Grice and Foster). You can bet that ASU keeps close track of its production and efficiency in each of its personnel groupings.

Even so, receivers are still going to be an essential ingredient to success, of course, and especially because ASU wants to be able to have the full spectrum of its playbook available. You need players at receiver who can stretch defenses vertically and be relied on to make possession receptions, and keep defensive play callers honest.

Which five players will make Alexander's core group?

The best way to examine this is to group ASU's wide receivers into two categories. There are guys who will play a lot for sure, and the guys who are fighting for the other spots.

Guys who will play

D.J. Foster (senior) -- The most likely spot we'll see Foster is on the field-side (furthest from the ball), which ASU calls its 2-receiver. ASU uses this player in the widest variety of applications of its players at the position. This receiver will do everything from vertical shots to screens and end around carries/jet sweeps and everything in between. Foster can of course also shift back to a role he's already familiar with, which is a tight slot receiver, though this is in what ASU views as a two-back formation. It's possible Foster also could play on the boundary side of the field, where he worked in the spring. Last year, Smith was on the field side and Strong was on the boundary side. Foster's strength is probably as an underneath, lateral route type of receiver and hand off/motion option, as he's very quick and able to get separation on routes that are more parallel the line of scrimmage.

Devin Lucien (senior) -- A big-play type target, Lucien is somewhat like Cam Smith in that he can play on either side of the field and is a speed/vertical threat. He's better playing in space and running big concept routes down the field than as a near-to-intermediate target. Foster's shift to the field side is made easier by Lucien's addition to the roster, but these players are versatile enough to flip and play either side. We aren't going to see as many of the possession type receptions to the boundary as we saw with Strong, but that almost goes without saying.

Gary Chambers (senior) -- Chambers has had the 5-receiver spot (slot) secured all year and isn't going to be challenged seriously for the starting role. This isn't an offensive system that relies on this position as much as other schemes do. A comparison would be how former ASU offensive coordinator and current UCLA coordinator Noel Mazzone uses his Y-receiver as a heavy possession target. But quarterback Mike Bercovici will probably spread the ball around more with his rhythm passing and he has the arm to make throws on the seam and other more pro-style throws in a way Taylor Kelly did not. So that means Chambers' targets should go up. All receivers are relied upon for blocking of course, but especially this position working toward down blocks and Chambers handles that roll very well

Guys fighting for the other spots

Ellis Jefferson --Size and skill-wise, Jefferson is the most like Strong on the roster. He's a boundary, possession style receiver who can do the back shoulder fade and catch the ball in traffic. He's not a separation guy, and has had to work on sustaining production and getting off the line of scrimmage more cleanly. Jefferson is a housemate of Bercovici and they seem to have good chemistry, so Jefferson's stock could be on the rise. He's got a real shot at backing up Lucien, or perhaps even betting him out.

Eric Lauderdale --A good athlete from a size to speed ratio, Lauderdale is good when he has the ball in his hands, but getting off press and bump coverage and into routes has required a lot of skill development. He's also had a big learning curve with moving to this level in terms of approach and familiarization. He's versatile enough to play three positions and could be the most likely back up for Chambers at the 5-receiver position if he's able to bring it daily, get lined up correctly with consistency, and show toughness as a blocker.

Tim White -- Speed and explosiveness are White's best assets. He may emerge as one of the receivers on this team most likely to separate from defensive backs and find room to be targeted by Bercovici, especially on home-run type shots: go routes, hitch-and-go and double movements like post-corners. He looks to have good route running position for a speed guy, but isn't big. He is probably going to end up battling Fred Gammage for the backup spot behind Foster on the field side.

Frederick Gammage --White and Gammage are similarly sized but different types of players. Gammage is more of a possession type receiver on shorter routes. He's extremely assignment sound and has great schematic fluency. He doesn't have the athletic ceiling as White, so a lot of what happens here will be determined by how quickly White assimilates. If White proves himself ready, he's going to play, and if not, Gammage is the type of makes more with less. That's what allowed him to go from walk-on to someone who can legitimately see the field.

Terrell Chatman -- The Sun Devils felt great about getting Chatman late in February and have been very pleased with him through summer workouts. He's a big boundary side receiver the coaches hope will be able to be a big production player and pro prospect in time. How quickly he's able to assimilate in terms of knowing the offense and be able to line up and execute without overly thinking is what will probably determine whether he's able to move up the depth chart and earn playing time, or whether he'll be a redshirt option.

Tyler Whiley -- Highly regarded coming out of Arizona, Whiley redshirted last year, has moved back and forth between offense and defense and not really found a clear-cut home position as yet. There's plenty of time for everything to start coming together, but it has to start with a greater sense of urgency. He's competing to back up Chambers with Lauderdale and fellow redshirt freshman Jalen Harvey. The person who does best in that regard puts himself in the lead to earn a starting nod in 2016

Jalen Harvey -- Similar to Whiley, Harvey was a high profile four-star addition out of high school who has bounced between offense and defense. He's a physical player but the assignment soundness, skill development and consistency isn't where it needs to be at this point to earn a Top-5 spot by Alexander. He's going to be jockeying for position this camp and August is crucial in terms of setting himself up for the future.

Summary

ASU coach Del Alexander wants to find a core group of five wide receivers he can rely on going into every game. In each of Graham's three seasons at ASU, the fifth leading wide receiver on the team has never had more than 10 catches. Last year, that fifth guy was Ellis Jefferson with 10 catches. It's unlikely we'll see this year be different. We can be reasonably sure Foster, Lucien and Chambers are going to be three of the five core players. Foster and Chambers will be starters. Lucien is likely to be the third starter but Jefferson can't be ruled out. At a minimum, Jefferson probably is the fourth most used guy unless he's somehow displaced by Chatman. That means ASU's other six wide receivers are probably fighting for the last core spot. Lauderdale has versatile and experience on his side. Gammage has experience and assignment soundness. White has explosive athleticism going for him. Chatman may have the most overall potential. Whiley and Harvey are going to really step up to not be on the outside looking in.


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