Harvey, Newsome hoping to form potent one-two punch for Arizona State

Under new offensive coordinator Billy Napier, Arizona State is hoping to maximize production from its slot receiver position in 2017.

In boxing, a "one-two combo" is the nickname for the jab and cross combination, a potent mix of punches designed to first weaken an opponent before delivering a devastating blow.

At Arizona State, the Sun Devils are attempting to develop a different type of "one-two combo," one that includes junior receiver Jalen Harvey and sophomore receiver Ryan Newsome, but one they ultimately hope will produce the same result.

This spring, ASU's coaching staff has shifted Harvey from an outside receiver position to the slot, where he's competing with Newsome, a transfer from Texas who sat out the 2016 season, for first-team opportunities. 

Though ASU has three wide receiver positions in the program's 11-personnel offense and could easily manipulate its depth chart to put Harvey and Newsome on the field at the same time, new offensive coordinator Billy Napier has two of the Sun Devils' most skilled receivers practicing at the same position.

While Harvey and Newsome could certainly wind up playing alongside one another at various points in 2017, ASU has asked the receivers to trade reps in the slot this spring in hopes that the duo's complementary styles will give the Sun Devils more schematic flexibility.

“It’s just a one-two punch," Harvey said. "Ryan (Newsome) brings the speed to the game, I bring my blocking and the other aspects, but I just feel like me and him, we get along so well, when we rotate, it’s not a problem. When he sees me tired, he’ll yell my name and when I see him tired, I’ll yell his name so it’s not really a problem rotating.”

In boxer's parlance, Harvey is the "one." At 6-foot-1 and 195 pounds, the rugged junior caught 21 passes for 330 yards last season, but caught the coaching staff's attention for his willingness and enthusiasm to serve as a blocker on perimeter run plays. 

Newsome, meanwhile, is the "two." At 5-foot-8 and 170 pounds, the former four-star recruit was considered one of the top slot receivers in the country entering college and is expected to bring big-play potential to ASU's offense this fall.

With Harvey and Newsome together, ASU feels as though it has a lethal combination that can fulfill every responsibility associated with the slot receiver position. 

Had former offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey remained with the Sun Devils this offseason, it's unlikely Harvey would have transitioned from the outside with Newsome becoming eligible and being an obvious fit for the slot receiver role. However, following Lindsey's departure for Auburn and the subsequent hire of Napier, ASU has explored the idea of using Harvey's skill set to complement what Newsome brings to the table in a scheme that promises to feature tight ends and slot receivers more prominently and in more diverse ways.

Through the first five practices of the spring, Harvey and Newsome have already practiced working from various alignments, including offset from the Sun Devils' tackles and tight ends as true slot or wing backs.

While Harvey spent the first three seasons of his ASU career learning the intricacies of playing on the outside, he said transitioning to the slot and working in the new alignments required of the position in Napier's offense isn't unfamiliar to him.

“To be honest, it’s not that different because I was playing that in high school sometimes when they used me for blocking cause I like blocking," Harvey said. "That’s one of my biggest aspects of my game. I think they’ll use me to do that, but I’ll catch the ball from the backfield or wherever they’ve got me at on the wing side.”

Aligning Harvey and Newsome offset from ASU's tackles and tight ends and tighter to the offensive line suggests Napier plans on introducing more pro-style concepts into the Sun Devils' scheme. 

First-year ASU wide receivers' coach Rob Likens said Harvey is ideally suited for the role because the slot receiver position in Napier's offense will require players to execute challenging blocks and set the edge on the perimeter, which are tasks Harvey relishes.

“Our slot guys a lot of times have to do what we call the dirty work and he’s (Harvey) the perfect guy for that job because he’s tough," Likens said. "He cares, he’s passionate about playing football, he takes it personal if he doesn’t get a block, if he doesn’t run the route the right way. Those are the kind of guys you want at that position because he’s going to have to dig out some players and block them and do some tough jobs there.”

While the Sun Devils' coaching staff is excited about the potential Harvey brings to the table as a blocker in the run game, there's another reason Likens and Napier think Harvey is capable of doing the so-called dirty work.

ASU head coach Todd Graham called Harvey one of the most intense competitors on the team last week, and both Napier and Likens indicated Harvey isn't afraid to go over the middle and use his physicality to make tough catches in challenging situations, which is something many smaller, less physical slot receivers struggle with.

"Jalen is a guy, he’s very capable, he’s been productive here in the past, he’s a bigger guy," Napier said. "We like that player to be a physical player, we like that guy to be able to catch the ball over the middle. He has to be a football-intelligent person who can handle a lot of concepts, a lot of different alignments."

Newsome embracing a "do-it-all" role

With Harvey's ability to block and run routes across the middle of the field, ASU believes it has the "one" in its "one-two combo" covered.

In Newsome, the Sun Devils are hoping to find a quality "two," a home run threat with the elusiveness and agility to rack up explosive plays from the slot and blow away would-be tacklers.

Newsome is expected to provide the knockout punch to opposing defenses, capitalizing in open space with the ball in his hands, a role he said he's ready to embrace.

With Napier calling the shots, ASU's tight ends watched film of former Crimson Tide star O.J. Howard to learn how Napier plans to utilize the position. However, Howard isn't the only Alabama player whose tape has been rolling in the Sun Devils' film room of late.

Newsome said he's watched clips of Crimson Tide receivers Ardarius Stewart and Calvin Ridley to gauge the type of routes he'll be running and the way Napier will deploy him within the Sun Devils' scheme.

“They kind of want me to just be the do-it-all guy," Newsome said. "I watched a good amount of Alabama tape, the scheme is very similar. Kind of like with Ardarius Stewart, Calvin Ridley going in motion, trying to get you a little picture of what we’re trying to do. So they’re trying to get me in motion, give me some pitch passes or reverses or whatever and we haven’t installed that yet so I’m pretty sure those are coming."

Likens said the Sun Devils have the flexibility within their scheme to move a player like Harvey tighter to the formation from his slot receiver alignment, but they're also multiple enough to roll out concepts that make the most of a player like Newsome's quick-twitch abilities on the perimeter at the same position.

“We’re so multiple, we can line up in just about anything," Likens said. "We’ve got Ryan Newsome there too, so we’ve got guys that can play that fast-twitch, quick-twitch slot guy too so we can go back and forth too, we’re very multiple.”

In high school, Newsome was recruited by Likens to play at Cal and Napier to play at Alabama, but ultimately settled on staying closer to home and signing with the Texas Longhorns. Ironically, after transferring to ASU, the assistant who helped recruit him to Texas, Jay Norvell, left the program to become the Nevada head coach, and now Newsome finds himself being coached by two faces he's familiar with.

Both Napier and Likens were well aware of the type of athleticism Newsome brings to the table before they arrived at ASU, and Newsome said he's benefitting from that level of familiarity. In some offenses, Newsome said coaches don't ask slot receivers to run every route in the playbook, but that's not the case under Napier and Likens, who he said recognize his capabilities and are prepared to allow him to showcase his talents.

“It’s very diverse so I’m running post corners, posts, some deep balls, some out routes, so the whole route tree really and I’m excited about that," Newsome said. "Because so many offensive coordinators in the past kind of wanted me to just be in the slot and utilize some option routes, but coach Napier has got me on the outside too so that’s something I’m excited about to really showcase the guys on the next level so I’m excited about that.”

Because the Sun Devils are just five practices into the spring, there's still plenty of time for Harvey and Newsome to develop refined roles in Napier's new scheme. What Likens and his receivers are focused on at this point is learning the playbook, understanding the offense's concepts and honing in on the details that will allow them to maximize their potential.

Likens said it's going to take awhile before everything begins to click for his receivers, but also mentioned that in the last two practices, he's noticed a difference in how certain players are focusing on details like watching the ball into their fingers, turning up field after catches and finishing routes. 

While ASU's receivers still have five months until the season starts to refine their approach, Harvey and Newsome are already eager to hit the field and unleash their "one-two combo" on opposing defenses.

“That’s what I think can make this group really special is you’ve got a little bit of everything," Likens said. "You’ve got size, then you’ve got some guys with real good speed, and then you’ve got some guys that can do just about anything. We can move big guys inside, big guys outside, we can get little guys outside and inside, so it’s good stuff.”

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