The recipe for Arizona State’s wide receivers corps is simple. The three best wide receivers will play regardless of their previous playing positions.
What’s not so simple is who exactly those three receivers will be. Two of the three starting spots are seemingly locked in with the return of redshirt senior wide receiver Tim White and redshirt junior wide receiver Cameron Smith
The third spot is up for grabs this spring between redshirt freshman wide receiver Terrell Chatman junior wide receiver Ellis Jefferson, sophomore wide receiver Jalen Harvey and senior Frederick Gammage.
Heralded freshman wide receiver N'Keal Harry will get into the mix in the fall, as will two other newcomers.
New ASU wide receivers coach Jay Norvell said the group has started to get a better feel of the offense this spring and he sees the benefits of not rotating players from the field and boundary after every play, which the Sun Devils did in the past.
“It’s just less running,” Norvell said on Friday. “It also allows us to learn the packages right and left. It makes your players more interchangeable. It makes the defense not be able to zero in on one guy whether he’s to the boundary or the field. It’s just something we’ve always done.”
Norvell said if a player in the group gets hurt, he might chose to shuffle all three players around on the field, depending on the situation.
“We might move a guy from right to left, move a guy from slot to outside, it doesn’t matter,” Norvell said. “The three best players are going to play so it makes you much more versatile and it gives your players a better knowledge of the passing game.”
Especially losing ASU wide receiver Devin Lucien to graduation, the Sun Devils are looking for one or two breakout replacement players to complement the running game headed by junior running backs Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage.
In his one and only year in a Sun Devil uniform after transferring from UCLA, Lucien led ASU in receiving yards, recording 66 catches for 1,075 yards and grabbing down eight touchdowns.
Former ASU wide receiver D.J. Foster was second in 2015 in receiving, averaging 44.9 yards per game.
Looking to fill the gaps made by Lucien and Foster is White, who remains one of the only productive wide receivers left from ASU’s 2015 wide receivers corps. White totaled eight touchdowns in 2015 and averaged 48.7 receiving yards per game.
White’s speed and agility is one of the strengths he brings to a deep position group and he sees this working to their advantage in the vertical passing game.
“We want to get down the field,” White said. “As receivers that’s what we want to do, is go deep so me and Cam (Smith), Jalen (Harvey), we’ve been hitting them deep all spring so really going out there and having fun and just competing. Any way we can make a play, that’s what we want to do.”
In addition to working on their shots downfield, White said Norvell has been teaching them how to attack and learn the little nuisances of the offense.
“It’s all the same stuff (as last year),” White said. “(Former ASU wide receivers coach DelVaughn) Alexander he’s taught me a lot of things, but it was a short year, I got there late so he (Norvell) has just emphasized everything coach Alexander taught me and attacking the defending and learning how to read coverages.”
Gammage – a fifth-year senior who once was a walk-on at ASU – said Norvell has helped with a lot of stuff “you wouldn’t usually think about.”
Working on how to perfect their releases, being good with their hands, and being smart when reading the coverage has been the focus, according to Gammage.
Additionally, under former ASU offensive coordinator Mike Norvell’s offense, a bigger, physical player like Gary Chambers traditionally played in the slot in the team's three wide receiver formations.
In ASU’s new offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey’s offense and under the direction of Jay Norvell, this role has transformed and has turned into more of a pro-slot role with speedier and versatile players.
Gammage said this pro-slot role is familiar to him since he played it in high school and while he has gotten used to playing in one of the outside positions at ASU, he’s getting back into the swing of things playing behind White in the slot.
“It’s a little broader route tree,” Gammage said, regarding the tweaked slot role. “I would say we have a little more option routes, so depending on what the defense does so we have to be smart. We have to know the coverage. If the linebacker blitzes, we do this. If he sits, we do this, so there’s a lot more options in our routes.”
Working in a timing offense, Gammage said it’s all about the connection and relationships the receivers and quarterbacks can make in the spring and summer – even if that means making connections to all three quarterbacks vying for the starting job.
But while the offense is new with Lindsey and the quarterback situation is still being worked out, according to Gammage, Lindsey has done a good job of keeping a lot of the hand signals for the wide receivers the same. Besides a couple minor changes, this has allowed the group to continue to work on their communication.
“I just think we got guys that can make explosive plays across the board from the first group and the second group,” Gammage said. “Anyone who steps on the field at wide out can make explosive plays. Make one person miss and go.”
With Gammage looking to make an impact in his final year in an ASU jersey, he will also have to beat out Jefferson, Harvey, and Chatman for crucial snaps on offense.
At 6-foot-5, 212 pounds, Jefferson seemingly looks and fits the part as ASU’s third wide receiver, but has yet to have a consistent year since arriving at ASU in 2013.
So far this spring, Jefferson had been in a green non-contact for a couple of practices, giving some first team reps to both Chatman and Harvey.
Harvey in particular has caught the eye of Graham, who referred to Harvey last week as a player who has impressed him thus far with his work ethic.
"I just have to keeping giving it my all every day," Harvey said. "It's all about just staying consistent. One day you can't have a bad day and then come back the next day all good. Knowing me as a player, I've got to keep my mind right and stay consistent every day."
ASU sophomore quarterback Manny Wilkins told reporters on Monday he had an underthrown pass to Harvey in a team period, but Harvey ended up making the play and catching the ball.
“I’m confident he’s going to give it his all and go get it,” Wilkins said.
Another player making strides on the field is Smith, who is looking to make a comeback after being forced to miss all of last year.
Last spring, Graham announced Smith had surgery on his right knee and would be would be out for the season. Smith’s knee issue was an injury he had been dealing with toward the end of the 2014 and the lingering discomfort caused him to miss the Sun Bowl as well.
This year, Smith – 5-foot-11, 193 pounds – is back practicing fully and to Jay Norvell, looks more than ready to play his role in the offense.
“I’m very pleased with Cam,” Jay Norvell said. “Cam is working very hard every day. He’s showing a lot of progress and he’s working hard. Today (Friday), he worked hard for the first three quarters of the scrimmage and really didn’t get a lot of action. Then all of a sudden he just explodes and that’s why we need to have playmakers at every spot because it’s like basketball. The way people defend you, different guys are going to have opportunities. So he did a really good job today, he practiced very hard, he’s making plays.”
And while Smith might be a quiet player on and off the field, his teammates said Smith is a leader through his actions.
“He’s just a dynamic player,” White said. “Extremely explosive, fast, dynamic player and a great teammates Hopefully we just have a great year and stay healthy and make some plays.”
-- Junior linebacker Christian Sam (hip), senior linebacker Laiu Moeakiola (shoulder), freshman offensive lineman Marshal Nathe (knee), senior tight end Kody Kohl (leg), and junior tight end Grant Martinez, were all in green non-contact jerseys. Moeakiola was warming up in his position group and participated in individual drills, not any team periods media were able to observe
-- Sophomore defensive back Dasmond Tautalatasi, junior wide receiver Ellis Jefferson and redshirt sophomore defensive back Armand Perry were out of the green non-contact jerseys and all participated with the second-team in 11-on-11 action.