The junior college transfer was the man Sun Devil quarterbacks targeted whenever they needed yards, and typically, Strong held up his end of the bargain as he notched 157 catches including 17 touchdown receptions in his two years with ASU.
So how do the Sun Devils plan to replace one of the most prolific receivers in program history? Not in an orthodox fashion.
Instead of counting on talented recruits to make a leap in playing time or for another veteran to slide in and match his production, the ASU coaching staff is hoping as many as six receivers can help offset the loss of Strong to the NFL Draft.
“It’s the same as it is every year, somebody’s got to graduate, somebody’s got to leave and the guys that haven’t had a lot of opportunities are going to step up and there’s an urgency there,” wide receivers coach DelVaughn Alexander said. “There’s an urgency for guys that want more and expect more out of themselves and the offense so it happens naturally. When Jaelen decides to leave, a guy takes it on himself and says, ‘I’ve got to be better.’”
Among the returning receivers hoping to step up their game are redshirt senior Gary Chambers, redshirt junior Frederick Gammage, and redshirt sophomore Ellis Jefferson. The trio has shown plenty of promise this offseason, but each still has to prove he can produce on the field as none recorded more than 16 catches a year ago.
ASU uses three different wide receiver positions, the 2, the 5, and the 9, and Alexander said the competition between Chambers and Jefferson to start at the 5-receiver spot is as fierce a battle as he’s seen this fall.
“It’s the closest race probably on the field, but at the end of the day, if we’re going fast and executing plays, then both of those guys are going to be on the field,” Alexander said. “Ellis has the opportunity to move over and play the 9 also so he’s a two-spot player.”
Alexander and offensive coordinator Mike Norvell have mentioned the Sun Devils are as deep at wide receiver as they have been in the past four seasons, but it remains to be seen if they have enough top-of-the-line talent to overshadow defensive backfields in the Pac-12.
One advantage the Sun Devils are counting on this fall is mixing and matching personnel packages to keep opponents off balance, which Chambers believes will present a significant problems for opponents.
“All kinds of challenges because we can stay fresh, there’s talent all over the field, everybody out there can make a play so we’re dangerous from every different aspect of the field,” Chambers said. “Obviously our running backs are doing great, our quarterbacks are our playmakers so us being able to have that depth and to move different positions and do different things helps us a lot.”
Aside from keeping defenses guessing, ASU is hoping the newfound depth at the receiver position will play into its favor because redshirt senior Mike Bercovici developed a reputation for spreading the ball around in his three starts last fall.
In a career outing against USC, Bercovici found eight different receivers, which is something that could become the norm for the full-time starter this season.
“I think what’s been amazing this year is the versatility that we have," Bercovici said. "From Devin (Lucien), Ellis (Jefferson), D.J. (Foster), Gary (Chambers), (junior college transfer) Tim White, there’s so many options where it’s going to be hard to game plan against us because we’ve got guys that can do what other guys do. It’s pretty special what we’re doing with Gump right now, and it’s going to be exciting to see how we can move this ball down the field.”
White suffered a left hand or wrist injury in the Camp Tontozona scrimmage a week and a half ago, but prior to that had been getting a lot of second-team and even some first-team reps in practices. He and Gammage, who only resumed practicing earlier this week after battling a hamstring strain through camp, can both play the 2-receiver option. Foster is likely to spend a lot of time there and Lucien is likely to start at the 9-receiver.
Foster, Lucien, Chambers and Jefferson are going to be among ASU's most used receivers, with White, Gammage battling with others, including junior Eric Lauderdale and redshirt freshman Tyler Whiley, to round out the rotation. At least before he was hurt, White and perhaps Gammage appeared to have an edge.
The quarterback-receiver dynamic
After learning of Strong’s early NFL departure during the winter, ASU also received news that junior wide receiver Cameron Smith would require season-ending surgery due to a knee injury.
Smith’s injury ensures that ASU’s healthy returning receivers accounted for fewer than 50 percent of the team’s receptions a season ago, as the notable deep threat hauled in 41 catches for 596 yards last year.
With two primary targets out of the fold, ASU knew it would have to depend on the likes of Jefferson and Chambers to take on more playing time.
With Bercovici taking the reins as the starting quarterback, both receivers feel confident after developing strong relationships with the fifth-year Sun Devil during the last few seasons.
For Chambers, he and Bercovici have worked with the scout-team offense and the second-team offense throughout their careers at ASU, and he said their connection has become almost second nature.
“I’m still close with Manny (Wilkins) and Bryce (Perkins) and Brady (White), but me and Berco (Bercovici) being here for a long time and also both being seniors, we kind of both have the same mindset as to how we’re approaching the season,” Chambers said. “You can definitely tell there’s a little bit of something going there.”
The Sun Devils saw the first glimpse at the potential of the Bercovici-Chambers connection on the final drive of ASU’s come-from-behind victory against USC last year. Prior to the famed “Jael Mary,” Bercovici located a contorting Chambers over the middle for a tough 26-yard reception in traffic that ultimately set up the grand finale.
While Bercovici and Chambers are just a handful of ASU players left who can recall the Dennis Erickson-era days, Bercovici’s relationship with Jefferson might extend even deeper. The pair lives together off-campus in a house with senior wide receiver D.J. Foster and redshirt senior defensive back Jordan Simone.
Jefferson said they take the quarterback-wide receiver dynamic home with them, to the point where they frustrate one another with an intense focus and desire to make each other better.
“He expects really big things from me and he tells me that, he digs in me, he’ll yell really hard at me and sometimes I’ll get mad at him and be serious and be like, ‘Why are you yelling at me,’ and then later on, I’ll understand," Jefferson said." I’ll come back to him, go upstairs and say sorry and he’ll just say he’s looking out for me and that he’s trying to get the best out of me. So I really appreciate everything he does.”
Like Chambers, Jefferson worked with Bercovici on the second unit for much of last season, and some of Jefferson’s best catches came when Bercovici was under center. For ASU to truly prevent defenses from locking in on Bercovici’s top targets, Chambers and Jefferson know they have to become more impactful players this fall.
Finding the Right Fit
Expecting players to step up and produce is one thing, but finding guaranteed production is a different story. In examining the returning skill position players on offense, only Foster and sophomore running back Demario Richard looked like sure bets to shoulder the heavy offensive load this fall.
So instead of keeping Richard and Foster together at running back, ASU spent the spring practice slate tinkering with a position change and a move to wide receiver for Foster.
After back-to-back 60-plus reception seasons out of the backfield, Foster committed full-time to shifting out and becoming the top weapon in the receiving game for ASU. Though Foster’s hands are proven, Alexander said the local product from Scottsdale wiped his slate clean to learn the position from scratch.
“I think he’s done a great job trying to step outside of being a running back,” Alexander said. “This is his senior year and he could easily say, ‘Coach, I’ve done all of that stuff already, I just want to sit back and watch a little bit and learn a little bit,’ but he’s come in kind of like the junior college player, like the transfer who’s totally focused and totally dedicated to his craft daily.”
Foster admitted some of the most difficult challenges he’s encountered while learning the position are a result of his prior knowledge of the offense from a different position. He said the terminology is completely different, and he’s been forced to let go of some of the things that have become entrenched in his mind during a three-year stint at running back.
“I really tried to approach it with a blank slate and let everything go that I learned at running back,” Foster said. “Learning a new position on the field, there’s a lot more language, it’s a very different language that I’m trying to adapt to so I’m trying to open my mind, and I think I’ve done a great job, but I’m trying to get better every day.”
Lucien caught just 58 passes in three seasons with the Bruins, but he’s a player with plenty of experience in Pac-12 games and another receiver who cites a standing friendship with Bercovici as a critical reason for his desire to step up this season.
Like Foster, Lucien’s adaptation to the playbook and the terminology has taken some time this fall, but unlike Foster, Lucien didn’t have the benefit of watching teammates work within the same scheme over the past three seasons.
For Lucien, the transition to ASU hasn’t been easy, but he said he understands and appreciates the coaching staff’s willingness to get the most out of him.
“This coaching staff has really been on me tough which is something I haven’t really experienced before,” Lucien said. “They’re always riding my case, and you know, I don’t know when I have a good play because even when I have a good play, I do something wrong. I know they’re trying to get the most out of me and I appreciate that.”
The last player the Sun Devils are counting on to fill the void left by Strong and Smith might actually be stepping into the rotation at the same place Foster did a season ago. Redshirt junior running back De’Chavon “Gump” Hayes has aligned all over the field in recent practices, and it’s becoming clear Norvell wants Hayes to touch the ball in space.
After focusing primarily on running back for most of fall camp, Hayes said he has worked closely with Alexander over the past week to make himself a more versatile pass-catcher who can play in the slot.
“I’m learning a lot, I’m learning my alignments, the route running, how to step on defenders toes, and it’s just bringing all that into my running back game because I want to be a complete back where you can line me up in the backfield and also at the slot so it’s definitely making me a more valuable player,” Hayes said.
Foster thrived out of the slot last season, and in turn, Norvell was able to create packages that maximized the amount of home-run threats the Sun Devils could put on the field at once.
After playing a little bit of slot receiver at the junior college level, Hayes said he feels his speed from the slot can help key the ASU offense because it will create mismatches against opposing linebackers in space.
“Knowing that it’s just one-on-one with that linebacker or that safety so I feel like whenever I’m at receiver, there’s no defensive back who can really check me out there so I feel like I’m at an advantage when I’m out there,” Hayes said.
With so many players competing to assume the in-game reps Strong and Smith garnered last season, there’s a consensus among the receivers that ASU is in great position to catch teams by surprise this year. And with the Sun Devils settling into their roles and finally grasping the nuances of the playbook, Alexander said his unit is ready to start preparing for Texas A&M.