Arizona State will be a much different looking football team in 2015 at wide receiver in terms of its personnel. Its two leading players at the position from last season, Jaelen Strong and Cameron Smith, with the former now in the NFL and the latter recovering from off-season knee surgery that will keep him off the field all year.
Even so, the Sun Devils may be deeper in terms of their overall number of players capable of seeing the field and contributing at wide receiver in 2015. They also are probably more athletic overall. It just appears they lack the star power and go-to possession/red zone weapon they had the last two seasons with Strong.
Senior wide-receiver convert D.J. Foster is the obvious headliner of the group, a year after catching 62 balls for 688 yards and three touchdowns. That's more than all other ASU receivers on the team combined. He's able to move around and play different receiving positions within the offense but is best suited for the field-side 2-receiver position, especially now that he's leaned out by dropping about 15 pounds to play the position.
Foster is great at running leverage routes underneath and is a catch-and-run option. He's challenging for defenses to manage when working more parallel to the line of scrimmage than as a vertical deep threat, though he'll certainly run those types of routes as well. Foster will be reading defenses differently on the perimeter. There are more option routes and he has to look at the safeties down as opposed to simply looking closer to him in the box, as he was able in the slot two-back role he used to fill.
UCLA post-graduate transfer Devin Lucien is going to be somewhat of a Smith facsimile in terms of style. He has perhaps the best big play potential of the ASU receivers and was the most targeted receiver down the field in our viewings in August practices. Lucien is working on getting the back shoulder fade component of the boundary-side position down, and that may determine how much he ends up being targeted and relied on in possession opportunities. But he and Foster are going to be on the field as much as any of the ASU receivers on the team.
At the 5-receiver spot, which is ASU's big slot role, returning fifth-year starter Gary Chambers has been trying to stave off a push from sophomore Ellis Jefferson for first-string duties. More often than not, we've seen Jefferson work with the first-team in recent practices, but both of these guys are going to play. Jefferson has the added ability of playing the boundary-side 9-receiver position behind Lucien, so a three player rotation between Lucien, Jefferson and Chambers is what's likely to materialize.
Jefferson and Chambers are both big-bodied guys who can make in-traffic grabs. Chambers' blocking has been reliable at the 5-receiver position, which is often called upon to down block on a linebacker and sustain difficult blocks in space of quicker defensive backs. He's probably a little more athletic than given credit for, but not a separation threat. Jefferson probably has a little more overall versatility as a route runner and playmaker, but also isn't going to get behind the defense.
Foster, Lucien, Chambers and Jefferson will be joined by one or two others as the primary players in the group. ASU coaches Mike Norvell and Del Alexander have expressed a desire to get five or six players who are ready to play successfully, so that he can keep the top weapons fresher not only within games, but as the season unfolds.
Junior Tim White, a junior college transfer out of College of the Canyons in Santa Clarita, Calif, is the most likely backup to Foster at the 2-receiver position, assuming he's healthy. He's had a cast on his left hand for two weeks and his status for ASU's Texas A&M opener Sept. 5 is unclear. But White has been practicing at least to some degree. Prior to getting hurt, White was taking first and second team reps and had assimilated relatively quickly. He's a world-class triple jumper and great athlete with route running upside. He'll probably contribute this year a fair amount, whether he's ready to be a standout remains to be seen.
The other solid option at the 2-receiver spot is Frederick Gammage. The junior and former walk-on is somewhat in the mold of Foster in terms of size and style, though not as quick or elusive. Most of Gammage's receptions come via screens and quicker slants and other routes that work back to the formation.
It's very important to point out that for practical purposes, ASU junior running back De'Chavon Hayes is essentially another wide receiver when he's on the field in most of the team's two-back formations. In the role that Foster excelled at several years ago, Hayes has a chance to be one of ASU's most targeted players in the passing game, and also is a vertical threat potentially even on par with Lucien on the perimeter. This will especially be the case of Hayes plays at any of the other numbered receiver positions. ASU's explored using Hayes as a 5-receiver and also aligning him into the boundary in some situations.
ASU's other wide receivers, junior Eric Lauderdale, redshirt freshmen Tyler Whiley and Jalen Harvey, and true freshman Terrell Chatman, have been working with the scout team -- or in Harvey's case, injured and out for an extended period -- recently and don't appear likely to play in the opener.
Wide receivers coach Del Alexander: “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. 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.’”
Alexander on D.J. Foster: “I think he’s done a great job trying to step outside of being a running back. 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 on making the transition: “I really tried to approach it with a blank slate and let everything go that I learned at running back. 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.”
Gary Chambers on benefit of added depth: “All kinds of challenges (for opponents) 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. 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.”
Quarterback Mike Bercovici on the group: “I think what’s been amazing this year is the versatility that we have. 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 [De'Chavon Hayes] right now, and it’s going to be exciting to see how we can move this ball down the field.”
Ellis Jefferson on Bercovici: “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. 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.”