When Arizona State arrived at the Kajikawa Practice Facility Monday morning, the Sun Devils' players hadn't even taken a step off the tram that shuttles the team between its locker room and practice facility before a familiar voice began echoing.
"Let's have a great day, today, huh!"
The voice surely resonated with ASU's wide receivers, and not just because it's responsible for one of the loudest sounds in Tempe at 8:30 a.m.. It's because the voice belongs to the receivers' position coach, first-year assistant Rob Likens.
A 25-year coaching veteran, Likens has seven former wide receivers currently playing in the NFL. So when he talks --and that's often-- the Sun Devils' wideouts are listening.
“He’s (Likens) the greatest receiving coach that ever lived," sophomore John Humphrey Jr. said. "He brings excitement to every drill, always talking, I love it. He knows what he’s talking about, he has guys in the NFL right now that are playing. He’s just a real cool, guy, and I’m glad he’s my coach.”
The third different position coach for ASU's receiving corps in the last three years, Likens takes over a unit loaded with high-caliber talent after former receivers' coach Jay Norvell left this offseason to accept the head coaching position at Nevada.
A former NFL wide receivers' coach, Norvell interviewed for ASU's offensive coordinator job last offseason, but finished as the runner-up for the job after head coach Todd Graham hired Chip Lindsey away from Southern Miss. Though Norvell didn't get the job he was looking for, a meeting with Lindsey convinced Norvell to join ASU's offensive staff as a co-coordinator and wide receivers' coach, and in the process, allowed Graham to hire both of his top candidates.
While Likens was hired before Lindsey departed to accept the offensive coordinator position at Auburn, Graham said Friday that he gave serious consideration to promoting Likens to replace Lindsey.
“The most important thing I do is the staff that I put together and Rob Likens is in the same mold (as Norvell)," Graham said. "As a matter of fact, he was a guy I interviewed for the offensive coordinator job and was one of the most impressive guys I talked to. He’s just a phenomenal person, phenomenal receiver coach.”
Prior to arriving at ASU, Likens spent two seasons as the offensive coordinator for David Beaty's Kansas Jayhawks after working for five seasons as an assistant on Sonny Dykes' staffs at Louisiana Tech and Cal. While Graham is excited about once-again adding a position coach with coordinating experience to his staff, the Sun Devils' wide receivers are impressed by the caliber of players Likens has helped mold at his various stops.
“Very positive, enthusiastic, which helps because as you’re going through practice every day it’s good to have a coach that’s positive with everything," ASU sophomore Ryan Newsome said. "He (Likens) really wants to coach you on the details. So we’re really excited about him, being on board here, we know his resume at Cal, and the resume speaks for itself.”
Though the first two decades of Likens' coaching career were spent at lower levels of football, it's not hard to see how he's developed NFL talent. From the moment Likens steps off the tram to the second he walks out of ASU's practice facility, Likens is peppering his receivers with coaching points and drilling the finer details of the position into their minds.
“You can just tell he (Likens) knows what he’s talking about," sophomore Kyle Williams said. "He’s just a really down to earth coach and he really just cares about his players and cares about us. He really just has our best interests as a coach, he’s a really genuine guy and he’s teaching us things that we’ve never been taught before. He’s really critical and he teaches us a lot about stuff but we learn a lot and everything is very finite in the detail and everything he does is very to the point."
How critical is Likens' style? Last Wednesday, sophomore Terrell Chatman cut toward the sideline on an out route during a drill at practice and used every inch of his 6-foot-3 frame to snag a one-handed catch on an errant throw. The reception was one of the best plays an ASU receiver has made this spring, but as soon as Chatman's hand came in contact with the ball, Likens' voice piped up.
"Two hands, T-Chat!"
“He’s (Likens) just a stickler on technique," Chatman said. "If you don’t get in the right stance, he’s going to chew you for it. If you make a spectacular catch, he’s going to chew you for it still just because you didn’t start off right. Like I said he’s just a stickler out there.”
Don't mistake Chatman's analysis of Likens as critical, though. Like every ASU receiver, Chatman's face lit up at the opportunity to share his perspective of his new coach, who he believes is going to help take his game to the next level.
Halfway through the spring, Likens' energy and enthusiasm for offering up coaching points has become an overriding theme of the Sun Devils' practices. From telling a Sun Devils' walk-on, "I don't even know you and I want you to have a good day, today," to howling with excitement after a receiver makes an adjustment during a drill, Likens is a walking double shot of espresso providing a jolt to his players' mornings.
“He’s (Likens) a great coach, he’s always bringing the energy," senior Ryan Jenkins said. "If you come out here a little drowsy and not all the way ready to practice, he’ll get you there just feeding off of his energy so it’s great to have a coach like that.”
Likens' voice doesn't just echo because it's louder than his coaching counterparts, it's also the voice heard most frequently. As ASU's receivers work their way through patterns, Likens' coaching points fly out faster than an auctioneer rapidly increasing the price of a hot item.
“With Coach Likens, he’s just active," junior Jalen Harvey said. "He’s not going to sit back for a second, he’s just steady-talking and that just keeps us on our feet and just keeps our mind active instead of just sitting still.”
In an increasingly complex 11-personnel offense featuring three receivers on the field in various alignments, there's no shortage of details for Likens to harp on. But before his players get to the point where they take the field, Williams said his new position coach is preparing the unit in the film room and showing clips geared toward reinforcing his coaching points.
“Your yardage, your steps, your toe point, your stick," Williams said. "Everything that you need to do is very detailed and to the point with how he wants it and that’s really how it goes.”
At ASU's practices, Likens has been known to drop his baseball hat on the grass to give ASU's receivers an exact location for where to break on certain routes. If Likens puts his cap down four yards beyond the line of scrimmage, he wants each player's route to look identical within those first four yards, so that creating separation from a defensive back becomes a more fluid process.
"To have him (Likens) as our co-coordinator, he’s a guy that has a lot of knowledge of this league and then he’s a master developer of the fundamental techniques it takes to play receiver," Graham said.
Likens said the types of adjustments he's harping on with his unit aren't going to take place overnight, but that's why the spring is such a critical point in the year. ASU's new wide receivers' coach wants to use the 15 practices at his disposal to establish a standard and level of expectation for his players, so that when the fall comes around, the bar will be set and the Sun Devils can continue to raise it.
"I’m extremely detail-oriented so it’s going to take awhile," Likens said. "But the biggest thing I’m trying to do right now is get them to understand how to practice the right way every day. And I’m talking, from looking the football to touching their fingers to watching the football into their tuck, how do they turn right after they catch the ball, how do they finish on every single play, scoring after they catch the ball even when the play is over, just getting all the great championship habits."
Led by sophomore N'Keal Harry, who earned Freshman All-America honors after posting an ASU freshman record 58 receptions for 659 yards in 2016, there's no shortage of talent for Likens to develop.
With Harry, Newsome and Chatman all on board, the Sun Devils have three players with at least three years of eligibility remaining who were rated as four-star recruits exiting high school.
Additionally, Likens has touted Harvey's willingness to "do the dirty work" as ASU's slot receiver, while players like Humphrey and Williams bring explosiveness and speed to the perimeter.
For a position group oozing potential, Likens is eager to channel it and ensure the players are developing into more versatile, complete receivers.
“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.”
After Friday's practice inside Sun Devil Stadium, ASU's receivers stayed late to work on fade routes with the Sun Devils' quarterbacks in the red zone. Though practice had concluded, the wideouts were still mastering their technique, and Likens' voice was still booming.
But instead of coaching up ASU's players on their over-the-shoulder catches, Likens was busy work on his next protege, his young son, who was out on the field catching passes from his dad. And to the surprise of no one, after tossing his son a touchdown pass, Likens yelled out "Awesome! Two hands!"
As his receivers have come to learn, with Likens, success is hidden in the details.
“He (Likens) gets real in-depth with which foot should be up, how many steps to go up on certain routes and that’s what I really love about him," Humphrey said. "He’s really picky about the technique and sometime it’s frustrating to me but I know in the long run that’ll make me the best receiver in the country.”