Ideal scholarship roster number: 10-11
Likely returning number: 7
Remaining ideal number: 1
With three senior starting-caliber player graduating at wide receiver it's an immediate need position. The commitment of N'Keal Harry to Arizona State on Monday further bolsters the program's 2016 recruiting efforts at wide receiver and puts it closer to its target goal of a minimum four-player haul at the position.
Entering 2016 recruiting it was clear this was going to be one of the Sun Devils' biggest needs and they're now sitting on three wide receiver commits out of 13 overall commits in the class, with Harry joining Jeremy Smith and Kyle Williams. The three are complimentary in the sense that they are not redundant types of receivers as it pertains to their fit in the ASU system.
Smith probably has the most positional versatility, as he projects to being able to play any of the three true wideout spots. Williams has the look of a field-side 2-receiver who also could potentially play the slot role in two-back formations like senior D.J. Foster. Harry is a true 5/9 receiver in the ASU system, which means he can play either the boundary or big slot Y-type role. These three players could potentially all play on the field at the same time at some point in their careers.
Harry's best upside comparison player in the ASU system is former All-American Jaelen Strong. The two have similarities in terms of size and style of play. But Harry also to some degree resembles senior Gary Chambers, a player who has been more lightly targeted as a pass catcher in his career even though he's averaging the most yards per reception on the team this season (332 yards on 18 catches through eight games).
The difficult thing to project is really where Harry will fall in the scale between Chambers and Strong from a numbers standpoint. He's going to be a starter-caliber player at ASU, just as Chambers is, but whether he'll rise to Strong-like stardom remains to be seen because such projections are difficult to make due to how many factors go into it.
Already there's a relatively wide discrepancy with how Harry has been evaluated by recruiting services. One national outlet has him as a five-star prospect rated in the nation's Top-25 overall players and the No. 2 wide receiver, while Scout.com has him as the No. 6 wide receiver prospect in the West, No. 28 nationally and No. 153 overall. Others have him somewhere in between.
Everyone agrees Harry is a very good football recruit, but some consider him a truly elite prospect from an ultimate upside standpoint. Where there's disagreement is about whether Harry has enough quick twitch athleticism and explosive speed to warrant elite status. Is he someone who will significantly stress defensive vertical lines to the point that he's able to open up the field in the way most elite outside receivers do at the NFL level and certainly do in college? If not, is he of Strong's caliber as a possession target on back shoulder fades and in-traffic routes as well as the red zone?
Harry won't need to have elite separation speed to make a huge impact on the college game at ASU if he possesses the Strong-like playmaking capability but to really be a five-star prospect as a wideout it's really a prerequisite in our opinion because such a designation is essentially a projecting to a first or at worst second round NFL status long term.
I've seen Harry play in four high school football games in person over the last two seasons and also watched two others on television and closely observed him in a variety of other settings including 7-on-7 team play and individual camps, and also watched all of the available film of him. As much as any evaluator, I have worked to develop an opinion of Harry's capability projecting to the college level and beyond.
I liked Strong's single-season junior college film a little more than Harry but Strong was also older at the time. Where Harry probably has Strong beat is as a route runner for a similarly sized guy at the same stage of his development, at a comparable 6-foot-3 (or a shade under) and 215 pounds. Harry stays more out over his feet and doesn't tip off routes like a younger Strong did, while also dropping his weight, using his arms more efficiently and transitioning better, particularly on sharper angled breaks and returns to the football. Given that Harry is younger and will arrive in college as a freshman, that's a great sign for his development.
Both players excel at being able to make vertical plays on the football and slow down the action and their mechanics at the ball's arrival, which is something a lot of players struggle with and are never able to master. It doesn't matter how fast you are if you have eye jog and not enough hand-eye coordination to complete the play. What really stands out about Harry is how dextrous he is for his size, and that shows up both in his routes, at the arrival point, and post-catch as a runner. He's very good at all three phases and has the ability to limit on center contact by defenders in small areas. There are other pluses with Harry, including his releases at the line of scrimmage being promising from a developmental standpoint. He uses his hands better than a lot of of ASU's current receivers did at the same stage, perhaps in part due to his martial arts background, the importance of which shouldn't be understated.
What prevents Harry from being considered truly elite in my opinion is that he's not really a guy who will generate daylight on late-bailing corners or even force those man coverage perimeter defenders to prematurely open their hips in a way that enables the underneath cushion to make a lot of plays without being draped. The truly elite players projecting to the NFL have that ability to put corners in an impossible choice of having to open up out of press to manage speed and prevent the big plays, or provide more of a buffer on backpedal in relaxed coverages.
But Strong also didn't have that at the college level and produced huge numbers and became a relatively well regarded NFL prospect even though he remained an average-at-best route runner through his second and final ASU season (though much improved from his first year). Harry of course is going to have to ultimately prove that he's ASU's best boundary side receiver in order to get the high volume targets that are prominent in the ASU offense and that's not a given with Cameron Smith returning from a knee injury, Terrell Chatman redshirting and others who will attempt to contend for the job.
It really seems like in a worst-case scenario though as I see it, Harry is functionally capable of being a more productive version of Chambers from a statistical standpoint, as he will not be inheriting a new coaching staff in the way that Chambers did, and considering ASU will have an immediate need at receiver with Chambers, Devin Lucien and D.J. Foster all moving on.
ASU junior Tim White is going to be very hard to keep out of a staring nod at the 2-receiver position for the Sun Devils next season, and that's where Smith started before his knee injury. If Smith comes back fully healthy, he could wind up the starting 9-receiver with Chatman and Harry among those battling for the starting 5-receiver and potential backup role at the boundary side 9-receiver position. Then there's Fred Gammage, Jalen Harvey, Ellis Jefferson, Eric Lauderdale and of course Jeremy Smith and Kyle Williams. Either one or both of those freshmen could also play right away, with Smith in particular looking like someone who could do just that given his size and multi-positional versatility.
Moving forward in 2016 recruiting, ASU still has its hooks in the water for some big fish, most prominently Tyrie Cleveland, who is the teammate of quarterback commit Dillon Sterling-Cole and one of the nation's fastest overall prep players. The Sun Devils are doing well with others, including San Diego-area four-star Steffon McKnight and John Williams out of Louisiana.
We've listed ASU targets T.J. Hammonds, Melquise Stovall and Damian Alloway as receivers as well, but these should be viewed as multi-positional offensive athletes who could wind up in the Foster role as hybrid running back-receivers. Chandler High School's Chase Lucas, a teammate and close friend of Harry, is expected to make a commitment announcement next week and ASU is in strong position. Lucas is a true athlete recruit who could wind up on either side of the ball. He plays running back primarily for Chandler and could fill the Foster slot role at ASU or easily wind up on defense. Even if ASU lands a commitment from Lucas next week, it will still keep its foot on the gas pedal and continue to try to get one more wide receiver or hybrid offensive player on board in the class.