Philosophical change may help Arizona State increase its offensive pace

One seemingly subtle difference with Arizona State's offense this spring -- how its wide receivers are lining up -- could have a real impact on its pace of play.

Arizona State's wide receivers are enjoying an important change this spring, one that could aid in the accomplishment of a key goal of head coach Todd Graham.

New offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey has done away with having receivers align based on the location of the football. In the past, if a play -- no matter how short -- resulted in the ball being closer to the opposite hash mark from where it started, ASU's outside receivers would usually have to switch places by running across the formation. 

No longer. 

"I think our offense is going to be way faster than what usually have," junior wide receiver Ellis Jefferson said. "You can see it on the field, that we're moving way faster. Linemen already down, receivers already set, it's really high tempo."

In the college game, there are benefits to flipping outside receivers based on the spot of the football due to the hash marks being wider than in the NFL. Some players' skill sets are better operating into the boundary, while others are more suited to playing in more space on the field side. A tradeoff though is that it takes longer in-between plays to get lined up, and the result is a bit slower operating time. 

That's something Graham is focused on. Even though the Sun Devils were fifth nationally last year at 82.3 plays per game by the offense -- trailing only Baylor (84.8), Texas Tech (83.4), Tulsa (83.3) and TCU (82.9) -- it felt downright glacial to their head coach. 

"I thought our pace, our tempo (last season) was almost turtle pace," Graham said, while also acknowledging surprise that ASU's national rank was as good as it was in the category. 

The pace of ASU's offense in the spring has already been complimented several times by Graham following practices this week, and players too are fond of the change. 

"Everything's pretty much the same but I like it even more right now," redshirt freshman Terrell Chatman said. "The pace is going be a lot faster. The wideouts, which I'm playing, you get to stay on one side. I like that pretty good, it's less tiring. We don't have to run across the field. That's the part I like most."

What will ultimately determine the success of ASU's offense, however, isn't how many plays it runs but how many yards it gains per play. While the Sun Devils ranked No. 24 nationally in total offense with 477.4 yards per game, that result is deceiving. In yards per play, ASU was a mediocre No. 55 in the country at 5.8 yards. 

Part of the reason they ran so many plays is because of how many big plays the Sun Devils allowed on defense, as Graham has candidly acknowledged. If ASU can get its offensive plays to go up or even stay the same in 2016, and increase its yards-per-play average by as little as a half yard, and also run 10 or so fewer plays a game on defense, that's a likely recipe for success. 

Offensively, that's going to be a major challenge no matter where the receivers line up. In addition to a first-year coordinator and several new position coaches, ASU will have a new quarterback this season, and must replace its two leading pass catchers from last year, receivers Devin Lucien and D.J. Foster, as well as experienced regular Gary Chambers. 

Senior Tim White -- who is practicing in the slot this spring -- improved throughout his first season with the Sun Devils last year, and finished with 57 catches for 633 yards and eight touchdowns. He and junior Cameron Smith who missed last season with a knee injury after catching 41 balls for 596 yards and six touchdowns in 2014, are able to be counted on. But one or more others will have to successfully step into a larger role. 

Jefferson 6-foot-5, 212 pounds, is getting the opportunity to do just that. He's worked with the first-team this spring after a pedestrian 2015 season that concluded with 12 catches for 160 yards. 

"It's a new start, a new start for everyone," Jefferson said. "I feel like this year, like every year, I'm treating it like my senior year and competing to be a starter. That's what I've done the three years I've been here and I'm trying to make it happen this year."

Chatman, too, figures to get a lot of chances to emerge. He's feeling as though he's more prepared to do so from a physical standpoint. 

"I've been progressing a lot in the weight room," Chatman said. "I got a lot more explosive. I'm 200 right now, I came in here right now at 185. I've definitely put on some muscle."

New wide receivers coach Jay Norvell is the person who will be looked to for results as ASU works to offset the departures of Lucien, Foster and Chambers. With a lot of experience coaching future NFL players at his previous stops, including Oklahoma, Graham is of the opinion Norvell has what it takes to get the job done. 

"I love his passion," Graham said. "He's got a torn Achilles, he's got that cart rolling around everywhere. But we were so fortunate. My deal is about being able to hire great men. He's a great person, he loves the players. I like the passion. I want that energy. I think, how each component fits together, I think that position was very important, partnering with coach Lindsey that I had a guy who understands our tempo and needed to be a passionate guy."

ASU's wideouts seem to agree, with Jefferson referencing Norvell's resume as confidence inducing. 

"There's a lot of different drills we're doing," Jefferson said. "A lot of hip mobility, a lot of hand motion, a lot of head fakes and stuff to get the [defensive back] off. He's bringing a lot to the table and we have to catch up to where he is. He's been through the league, been with a national championship team, been there before, coached a lot of NFL guys. He knows exactly what he's talking about and everyone is already bought in and believe in what he's doing."

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