Competition stiff for WR roles this season

There's better athletes at the position at depth, and not a lot of separation through Arizona State's wide receiver position group.

PAYSON, Ariz. – Arizona State’s future starting wide receivers will come down to the numbers.

The ASU passing game is built around numbers. The coaches use numbers to label each receiver. The offense has the two, the five and the nine receiver positions. Each number tells the receiver where he will line up on the field.

Right now though, the number ASU offensive coordinator Mike Norvell and wide receivers coach DelVaughn Alexander are concerned about is six.

“We’ll have six guys,” Alexander said. “We’ll have six guys that can play. We’ll have six guys that can make plays. Because of the competition, you allow it to take shape instead of predetermining it. There’s a lot of guys and a lot of talent and a lot of roles that are up for grabs.”

The ASU passing game coordinators have always wanted to have a rotation of six receivers all making an impact on the offense. Norvell said this might be the year the coaches can find that group of receivers.

“I want to play six receivers,” Norvell said. “That’s what I want to do. We’ve only been able to play three, maybe four up until this point. But, I think we have a real shot to be able to keep guys fresh, play more plays and that’s going to do nothing but help us.”

Norvell went on to say that this is, “hands down,” the deepest group of receivers he has had at ASU.

The question is who will those six receivers be, and ASU coaches are trying to find that out at Camp Tontozona.

At this point in camp, there are a few guarantees when it comes to the ASU offense. The best way to think about the offense is to break it down by the numbers.

There will always be five offensive linemen on the field, the quarterback, and usually at least one running back in the backfield.

That is seven of the 11 positions already taken up with senior quarterback Mike Bercovici as the starting quarterback and sophomore running backs Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage as full service players.

About half the time the ASU offense is on the field, give or take, junior tight end Kody Kohl will be in the lineup either as a 3-back (a move h-back position numbered 3 in the ASU offense) or an in-line tight end.

With Kohl and a running back on the field (11 personnel) that leaves three receiver positions open. Sometimes Kohl will be out and ASU will have four wide receivers with one back (10 personnel). This is where Norvell and Alexander want to have a six receiver rotation and where they can plug in different athletes to create mismatches for the defense.

Since senior wide receiver D.J. Foster is one of the best athletes on the team, he is at the top of the list. Foster has been playing at both the boundary 9-receiver and the field-side 2-receiver.

Foster said early in camp he has embraced the change from running back to wide receiver.

“I feel great,” Foster said. “I put in a lot of time in the film room over the summer especially dropping weight and being in more conditioning shape. I feel a lot better running out here. It’s a lot of running we got to do at the receiver position.”

Foster said he dropped 15 pounds in the summer to be a leaner to play the receiver position as opposed to a running back. He said it is his natural body type and feels more comfortable with his weight.

After Foster is where the real competition begins.

ASU brought in two wide receivers in the offseason to help add depth. Senior wide receiver Devin Lucien transferred from UCLA to play his last year of eligibility at ASU and junior wide receiver Tim White is a junior college transfer.

Last season Lucien had 29 receptions for 225 yards and two touchdowns in 13 games with five starts for the Bruins.

Lucien has primarily been playing the 9-receiver spot which was former ASU wide receiver Jaelen Strong’s old position.

“They have me running the 9-man,” Lucien said. “That’s usually to the backside boundary. Coach (Todd) Graham and coach Norvell have done a great job preparing me to do a lot of the same things that Jaelen did. I’m not as big as Jaelen of course, but I feel like I have a lot athleticism to make up for that and I also can stretch the field and I can run routes too.”

White had an impressive day at camp Thursday. He caught two touchdown passes from Bercovici against the starting defense.

Both passes White caught coming across the middle of the field. Once he caught the ball he quickly turned up field to score.

When White was recruited to come to ASU he said coaches told him to use his speed and to be physical. He showed off both of those skills when he caught the two touchdown passes by fearlessly sprinting through the middle of the field.

“I don’t mind being physical, getting physical, getting hit going down the middle so I believe that is one of my strong points,” White said. “It’s definitely mental. You just have to know that you just have to put your body in the right place so that when you do get hit, you could bounce off and make a play.”

The returning wide receivers also in the mix are senior Gary Chambers, sophomore Ellis Jefferson, junior Eric Lauderdale, junior Frederick Gammage and redshirt freshman Jalen Harvey.

True freshman Terrell Chatman has been batling a hamstring strain and mostly off the field in team periods this week and the team's leading returning receiver, junior Cameron Smith, is out for the season following knee surgery.

During practice Wednesday, the penciled in first team group of receives consisted of Foster, Lucien and White on the field together.The three quasi-starters were constantly moving all over the field in different alignments.

The same was true when the second team players including Jefferson -- who took some first-team reps in some portions of the practice including the initial team tempo -- and Harvey came on to the field. They were also lining up at different receiver spots.

Jefferson said he likes the playing multiple positions.

“I feel like I’m more comfortable in the position that I’m in,” Jefferson said. “My freshman year I played the five, I played the slot, the rest of my freshman year I played the nine. Now this year, I’m just playing both. I could play the two also to the field and so I can play any position. I feel more comfortable knowing every position now.”

Norvell always wants get as many playmakers as he can on the field. Besides the true receivers on the team, Norvell has been positioning running backs like junior De’Chaven “Gump” Hayes at what looks like a 5-receiver spot, but is really more of a 20 personnel look (two running backs) with one aligned as a receiver in the slot.

Since sophomore Kalen Ballage has shown so much improvement, Norvell will try to get both Ballage and Richard on the field at the same time. True freshman running Jason Lewis could also be an option if the coaches decide not to redshirt him.

With all of the weapons on offense Bercovici has a good problem on his hands trying to distribute the ball to all these players.

“We got running backs that can run the ball all over the place, wide receivers, it doesn’t matter who you put in, they’re all extremely talented,” Bercovici said. “It’s just fun to be specifically part of this offense.”

Notes

  • True freshman defensive lineman JoJo Wicker was the first team at Devil again (as a down lineman). Coach Todd Graham said after practice the defense should have a 4-man front base with Wicker playing the Devil with his hand in the ground. Graham said the defense will also run a 3-man front with sophomore linebacker D.J. Calhoun or someone else rushing off the edge as the Devil.

  • Senior linebacker Antonio Longino was out the green no-contact jersey Thursday and was back in the Pat Tillman No. 42 jersey. He took the majority of his reps with the second team at the WILL linebacker position. Calhoun was the first team WILL linebacker again.

  • Sophomore tight end Raymond Epps appeared to have a leg injury midway through practice. He did not participate the rest of the day and spent his time stretching at Muscle Beach.

  • Junior linebacker Laiu Moekiola did not participate again Thursday. His foot issue has kept him from practicing since almost the start of camp. Sophomore safety Marcus Ball took the first team reps at Spur again.

  • Freshman tight end and Devil backer Jay Jay Wilson participated in 11-on-11 drills for the first time Thursday. He played some limited reps with the third team defense as the Devil backer.

  • Junior defensive lineman Deonte Reynolds has not been academically cleared to practice as of Thursday.

  • During the second team session the offense was focusing on its pass game. Therefore, the defense worked in its nickel package. In the nickel package Wicker would slide down to the 1-technique, Smallwood and Cherry stay in at the end positions. The defense brings in Calhoun as an outside blitz threat and Longino and Fiso are the two linebackers.

  • ASU Athletic Director Ray Anderson was in attendance again Thursday for practice, as was the case Wednesday.


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