Despite losing two of its top three pass catchers from last season, Arizona State may not take a step back with its wide receiving corps in 2016.
Yes, the remarkable production of UCLA post-graduate transfer Devin Lucien in the second half of last year may be a challenge to replicate at the outset of this season, at least by any individual player. Lucien had three consecutive 100-yard games to end his career and more than half his season output in November and December on his way to a 1,000 yard receiving season.
Yes, four-star standout player D.J. Foster was an important figure with the program. Foster had a great career as a Sun Devil but was misused in the first half of the season by then-offensive coordinator Mike Norvell and his 59 catches for 584 yards with three touchdowns fell far short of what could have been.
In terms of coaching, talent and depth though, these Sun Devils are not likely to backslide whatsoever. Early in preseason camp, ASU coach Todd Graham gave an unprompted statement about the value of first-year wide receivers coach Jay Norvell.
"If you said, 'Coach, first four days, what's something that's really stuck out to you,' it was the fundamental improvement at wide receiver," Graham said. "It's been phenomenal, he's (Norvell) done real well."
Having capable players is essential, and Senior Tim White, junior Cameron Smith, sophomore Jalen Harvey, junior Ellis Jefferson and freshman N'Keal Harry could be ASU's most athletically gifted quintet at the position in years.
White had 57 catches for 633 yards and eight touchdowns last season, his first at the Division I level out of College of the Canyons. He started out last with broken hand but by the end of the season was trending toward becoming one of the Pac-12's more electric offensive weapons.
In the offense of first-year coordinator Chip Lindsey, White will move from the perimeter to the slot. Lindsey's receivers at Southern Miss last season were heavily targeted at the position, and the 5-foot-11, 175 pound White is a much better athlete than what Lindsey had to work with in that role.
Right out of the gate in preseason camp this month, White looked as good as any player on the ASU roster. As a result, he was the only player on the team awarded the Pat Tillman practice jersey. His route running is crisper than ever, and he's extremely fit and explosive coming off a NCAA track season that saw him finish fifth nationally in the triple jump. As long as he stays healthy, White should be able to improve on his production of from last season without much trouble.
Smith missed 2015 with a knee injury but was the Sun Devils' top route runner and best vertical threat in 2014 as a sophomore when he had 41 catches for 596 yards and six touchdowns.
Reporters haven't seen it, but we've heard from reliable sources that Smith has been putting on a show in recent practices, demonstrating that he's perhaps athletically back to where he was before the injury. He's spent the last year working on his physique, in addition to rehabilitation, and at 6-foot-0 and 203 pounds Smith is now one of the most visually impressive players on the roster. When fully healthy, Smith's big play capability is near the upper end of the Pac-12 spectrum, below only a handful of elite players.
In Harvey the Sun Devils have a sophomore who flashed late in the season and then kicked it into a higher gear in practices this year. He appears to have matured and channeled his competitive disposition in the best of ways, a laser focus that shows up reliably on the practice field daily.
Havey, 6-foot-1, 185 pounds, is physically and mentally tough, a better athlete than perhaps given credit for. He's very good at bring in the football when seemingly well defended, elevates and uses his body to shield defenders. He's a good and ever-improving route runner and a willing and determined blocker. That's not just true of Harvey, but also White and Smith, the latter of whom was also the team's best wide receiver blocker in 2014.
Smith and Harvey are competing with one another at the Z (flanker) position, and have propelled one another through competition. Harvey started out camp atop the depth chart and was playing very well as Smith slowly built back up to his maximum output. By the time school started a week ago, Smith was back atop the depth chart and showing the type of explosiveness that and big concept route runner that became a hallmark before his injury.
At the X (split end) position, Jefferson and Harry have waged a serious battle. At 6-foot-5 and 6-foot-4, respectively, and both well over 200 pounds, they're bigger receivers who play to their size at the ball's arrival. Jefferson has been very impressive at times in practices over the last several years but not been able to reliably transfer it over to games as yet. He had 12 catches for 160 yards and no touchdowns last season.
Harry arrived at ASU as its most decorated and highly regarded high school prospect in the 2016 class out of nearby Chandler High School. He's earned praise for his work habits and bounced back quickly from a minor injury that had him in a green non-contact jersey for several days midway through the month's practices.
Jefferson apparently had a big scrimmage last Saturday that included several touchdown catches and yet Harry worked with the first-team Tuesday and Wednesday because he too was playing at a high level in recent practices. Both players are likely to see a lot of game reps in the season-opener against Northern Arizona on Sept. 3.
After White, Smith, Harvey, Harry and Jefferson, there are a couple players who could find their way onto the field and provide of service.
Senior Frederick Gammage, a former walk-on, is the likely back-up to White at the H (slot) position. From a style standpoint, Gammage benefits from the move to the slot in Lindsey's offense. It's just that ASU's got enough talent at the position that it will be hard for Gammage to become a frequent target.
Redshirt freshman Terrell Chatman is a talented longer-framed athlete who can make some eye-opening plays but is working to become more consistent; Tennessee transfer and walk-on Ryan Jenkins is a bigger-bodied versatile player who has at times worked with the second unit; true freshman Kyle Williams appeared to be pushing Gammage as a second-team slot option before moving to the defensive side of the field Wednesday.
Waiting in the wings, ASU has a talented group of players who will sit out this season following transfer as as first-year college players who will redshirt and acclimate: Ryan Newsome who transferred from Texas; John Humphrey Jr. who transferred from Oklahoma; and freshmen Jeremy Smith, Frank Darby and Jack Smith.
Jay Norvell: "[Tim White is] very aggressive, and he has great athletic ability. But the thing that you're more impressed with is how physical he is and how hard he plays. He doesn't go down easily. He's not an easy guy to tackle. I respect that more about him than the fact that he's really fast and he's a great athlete because that's more about his mentality and his toughness."
Jay Norvell: "[Harvey] doesn't get a minute off, and he comes to work everyday. You know what you're going to get out of him. That really as a coach, is what we expect is that you come everyday and you punch a clock and you work hard everyday."
Jalen Harvey: "Attacking every aspect from studying, to asking questions, from staying after watching film, catching the ball more with the wide receivers after practice, just attacking everything."
Ellis Jefferson: "I feel I can outrun anybody, but the quick game, running curls, running stops, running slants and all that stuff and making those plays, I feel like that's something I've worked on this summer and it's paying off. If you watched today's practice, I felt really comfortable running those certain routes."
N'Keal Harry: He's (Norvell) a great coach, he's taught me a lot of things such as my stance, my hands, stuff I worked on in high school but not to this level. So stuff like that like little details are going to help me elevate my game to a new level."