Rated by Scout.com as the nation's No. 113 wide receiver prospect in 2008 with competing scholarship offers from three other Pac-10 schools, Pickens was generally overshadowed among ASU's 2008 signing class in terms of overall notoriety when compared to the Sun Devils' other high-caliber skill position signees such as running back Ryan Bass and wide receivers Kemonte Bateman (who ultimately did not earn academic qualification) and Gerell Robinson, however Pickens caught the staff's collective eye while redshirting in 2008.
"Last year I focused a lot on the finer points, like running routes and just learning the plays and I believe that helped me improve quite a bit," reflects Pickens. "That's one of the main differences from the way I am as a player this fall compared to last year; I feel much more confident because I had the experience on the scout team and now I can come out this year and do my best to contribute."
In 2009, ASU figures to have perhaps the most talented and deep crop of wide receivers in the Pac-10, with athletes such as the aforementioned Robinson and Williams, as well as returning stars, Chris McGaha and Kerry Taylor, and up-and-coming youngster T.J. Simpson.
While some young athletes may view such diverse competition as a curse, Pickens views the field as an opportunity for overall improvement and growth.
"It's a blessing to have so many talented wide receivers on this team," admits Pickens. "Especially with some of the changes in the offense, the receivers are going to get a lot of opportunities to make plays this year. There's also a lot of experience there with guys like Chris (McGaha), Kyle (Williams) and Kerry (Taylor), and they're very helpful for the younger players such as me who are just starting our careers."
Pickens is viewed by many as somewhat of an heir apparent to Kyle Williams, not only as a quick slot receiver, but also as a potential game-breaking special teams returns threat, and Pickens may get an early opportunity to shine in the return game as he exited spring drills as ASU's top kickoff returner and also adds depth behind Williams at punt returner.
"I'm very excited to hopefully get an opportunity on special teams this year," mentions Pickens. "I'm definitely very focused on improving as much as possible at wide receiver, but special teams might be my best chance to contribute right away. I believe I'm a good fit on either kickoff or punt returns; I think my quickness and speed help me do well at both. Most importantly, I want to help the team in any way that I can and feel blessed to have the opportunity to play football at Arizona State."
With the very recent decision by Allante Battle to focus solely on track and field and the required redshirt in 2009 for Oregon transfer Aaron Pflugrad, Pickens will likely be one of the top reserves to Kyle Williams during Pickens' redshirt freshman season in many capacities. Luckily, the team-first mentality is one that is shared from seniors to freshmen, enabling Sun Devils of all classes to contribute.
"Kyle Williams has been helpful for my development since I started last year, and of course (wide receivers) Coach (Eric) Yarber and also (special teams) Coach (Jamie) Christian are the ones who are teaching me on an everyday basis," states Pickens. "They've all helped me as far as the skills I need to improve as a football player as well as other areas that will be helpful just in life. Kyle and I are pretty similar types of players as far as what we do best, but he has had a great career so I try to learn as much as I can from him."
Though he is among a talent-rich group of receivers, A.J. Pickens can be expected to work his way toward early contribution in 2009, by any means necessary.