Tim Nelson/SunDevilSource.com

Spring primer: Arizona State wide receivers

Led by sophomore N'Keal Harry, Arizona State's wide receiver corps boasts plenty of explosive young players eager to prove themselves under new position coach Rob Likens.

Spring primer: Wide receivers

Returners (10)

N'Keal Harry: 58 receptions, 659 receiving yards, five touchdowns, 11.36 yards per reception

Jalen Harvey: 21 receptions, 330 receiving yards, no touchdowns, 15.71 yards per reception

Cameron Smith: 12 receptions, 192 receiving yards, no touchdowns, 16.0 yards per reception

Kyle Williams: Six receptions, 56 yards, no touchdowns, 9.33 yards per reception

Ryan Newsome: Transfer from Texas, sat out 2016 season due to NCAA rules

John Humphrey Jr.: Transfer from Oklahoma, sat out 2016 season due to NCAA rules

Terrell Chatman: Did not record a reception in 2016, his redshirt freshman season

Jack Smith: Practiced as a backup quarterback for the majority of 2016 season

Frank Darby: Redshirted in 2016

Jeremy Smith: Redshirted in 2016

Spring newcomers (0)

Anticipated fall arrivals (1)

Curtis Hodges: Three-star signee, No. 168 wide receiver recruit nationally, No. 27 wide receiver in the West region

What to expect: When Arizona State's offense takes the field this spring, the Sun Devils will do so working with their third different play-caller in three seasons, as former Alabama wide receivers' coach Billy Napier takes over for departed coordinator Chip Lindsey.

Upon his arrival at ASU, both Napier and Sun Devils' head coach Todd Graham have indicated the program will return to a more run-centric approach on offense, relying more heavily on the rushing attack than ASU did in 2016 under Lindsey and in 2015 under his predecessor, Mike Norvell. 

During previous coaching stops at Alabama, Colorado State and Clemson, Napier has worked under some of college football's most prominent offensive minds like Jim McElwain, Doug Nussmeier, Lane Kiffin and others, all of whom have an impressive command for successfully executing pro-style schemes.

With Napier set to call plays at ASU, one of the intriguing storylines surrounding the Sun Devils this spring is how his offensive approach will mesh with that of new ASU wide receivers' coach Rob Likens, whose experience coaching at the college level comes mostly in Air Raid and spread offenses.

The third different receivers' coach in three seasons at ASU, Likens spent five seasons working under Sonny Dykes at Louisiana Tech and Cal before becoming the offensive coordinator of an 11-personnel, spread offense at Kansas under former Graham assistant David Beaty.

With Graham and Napier talking up ASU's renewed focus on developing a more consistent rushing attack, is a coach with Likens' experience in pass-oriented offenses the best possible fit for the Sun Devils? According to Likens, yes.

“I know a lot more about the run game than people would know, maybe, but if you’re a smart wide receiver, the run game sets everything up for you," Likens said at ASU's spring football media day. "That’s the thing that I want to bring to the table is to get these guys to understand, let’s get the run game going first. Because if you get the run game going, they have to bring an extra guy in the box which gives you a lot of one-high secondaries. When you get a one-high secondary, that’s a lot of one-on-one coverage."

Though the resumes of Napier and Likens don't necessarily appear symbiotic, Likens believes ASU's offensive approach under Napier will create more favorable opportunities for a younger receiving corps loaded with potential.

"You can take a guy away, you can double him, you can roll the coverage to his side, but if you’re a defensive coordinator and you’re concerned with the run game, it’s hard to take an outside receiver away," Likens said. "Getting these guys to buy into that, hey 11-personnel, let’s be tough, let’s run that football first and then that’s going to do nothing but open things up for you.”

Likens said the process of preparing his receivers to buy into ASU's offensive philosophy will begin this spring, when he steps onto the field with his position group for the first time. And though the Sun Devils only return four receivers who recorded a reception during the 2016 season, Likens has an exciting opportunity to mold certain prospects into the types of receivers defensive coordinators will find it challenging to consistently take away.

The headliner of ASU's receiving corps is sophomore N'Keal Harry, who earned Freshman All-America honors last season when he set the Sun Devils' freshman record for receptions with 58. At 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, Harry has perhaps the most impressive frame of any target during the Graham era, and wasted no time assimilating to the Pac-12 level during his first season with the program.

In Harry, ASU has a bonafide No. 1 option with First Team All-Pac-12 potential who should thrive as an outside receiver regardless of who wins the Sun Devils' quarterback competition this offseason.

"We talked yesterday, a lot of work to do, excited to work with him (Harry) on his routes, his development, but to start out, somebody that’s that big, that size, really he’s never covered if he knows how to do it properly," Likens said. "No matter where the DB is at, he’s going to be bigger than every DB that he goes against so if he learns how to use his body properly, he’s never covered if the quarterback can put it somewhere away from the defender and he can make some contested catches. He’ll be pretty special.”

With Harry slated to lock down one of the Sun Devils' three starting receiver positions, the battle for the other outside receiver spot could become one of the most compelling competitions this spring. 

In 2016, senior Cameron Smith and junior Jalen Harvey competed for the starting role opposite Harry, with Harvey earning the lion's share of the repetitions in part due to his impressive blocking skills and also due to a knee injury that sidelined Smith during the second half of the season.

Smith missed the entirety of the 2015 season after undergoing knee surgery and was poised to reclaim his role as ASU's best downfield threat last year, but Smith never displayed a great level of comfort returning from injury. 

This spring, Smith and Harvey will be joined on the outside by Oklahoma transfer John Humphrey, Jr., who spent the 2016 season as one of ASU's top scout team performers. Though Humphrey's frame is narrower than both Smith and Harvey, he possesses elite speed and figures to battle for a spot at or near the top of the depth chart.

In the slot, ASU has the difficult task of replacing multi-year starter Tim White, who reeled in 56 receptions last season and led the Sun Devils with 713 receiving yards. White's elusiveness set him apart as one of ASU's most dynamic offensive weapons, but Likens is hopeful the program will be able to offset his loss with another explosive threat.

Former four-star prospect and Texas transfer Ryan Newsome earned ASU's Scout Team Offensive Player of the Year Award after sitting out the 2016 season due to NCAA transfer rules, which means the 2017 spring practice slate will serve as Newsome's first opportunity to climb the depth chart.

Though he'll be competing with fellow sophomore Kyle Williams who served as a backup slot to White and then-senior Fred Gammage last year, Newsome has elite potential and a high ceiling at a position that could be featured prominently in Napier's offense.

While the Sun Devils only have four experienced scholarship players back at wide receiver in 2017, the additions of Humphrey and Newsome to the depth chart offer ASU more flexibility and should encourage a much higher level of competition this spring.

“One of the things I heard when I got here is their (Humphrey, Newsome) attitude and I think that speaks a lot of about a kid’s character," Likens said regarding what he heard about the duo's performance on ASU's scout team last season. "How hard does he practice when he knows he’s not going to get to play Saturday?"

In Harry, Smith, Harvey, Humphrey, Newsome and Williams, the Sun Devils have four players with returning experience and two high-profile transfer players who should all make serious pushes for leading roles in ASU's offense this spring.

Still, ASU has a handful of receivers waiting in the wings armed with a pivotal chance to challenge for more playing time this fall. Because the top five-to-six players in the Sun Devils' wide receiver rotation likely won't change much when the season begins, the work ASU's underclassmen put in this spring and in fall camp will go a long way toward determining their level of involvement in 2017.

Of the remaining scholarship players, the two most likely options to compete for more significant roles are sophomore Terrell Chatman and redshirt freshman Frank Darby, who will likely square off this spring to determine which player will serve as Harry's primary backup. 

Though ASU could obviously shift a player like Humphrey or Smith to the other outside receiver role behind Harry if necessary, the Sun Devils have two younger, inexperienced options who should see their most extensive look yet from the team's coaching staff this spring.

In Chatman, ASU has a 6-foot-3, 188-pound wideout with an intriguing frame whose assimilation to the college level has taken longer than expected. In Darby, the Sun Devils have a 6-foot, 197-pound prospect who redshirted during his first season on campus, but like Humphrey and Newsome, drew impressive reviews based on his scout team performance. 

If either player emerges as a serious threat to contend for playing time this spring, the Sun Devils should feel more confident about their overall depth moving forward, especially considering eight of the 10 scholarship players are sophomores or younger.

Further down the depth chart, sophomore Jack Smith and redshirt freshman Jeremy Smith will attempt to carve out roles, as both players were quarterbacks at the high school level who will need to hone in on the coaching points Likens offers in skill development periods this spring if they hope to contend for playing time in the future.

While the majority of the Sun Devils' players at the position are largely unproven, the depth at ASU's wide receiver group has undergone a massive transformation within the past two offseasons. What was once a unit thin on dynamic playmakers is now re-stocked with a higher caliber of athlete and younger weapons with higher ceilings, which has Likens convinced he'll be able to tap into some of ASU's unproven talent this spring.

“That’s one of the things that I noticed when I came on the interview," Likens said of ASU's roster makeup at wide receiver. "I was looking at the list of players was that when I got to Cal several years ago, it was very similar. All of those guys were freshmen or sophomores so I just, I thought back at how cool that’s going to be to be able to develop these guys and watch them all grow together. Because I think that’s very important that they stay together and they lift up together.”


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