Expectations of Todd Graham’s offensive unit run by Mike Norvell were unclear going into the 2012 season. We knew the team would be transitioning from a throw-first approach used during the end of the Dennis Erickson years, but most were unsure what we thought we might see in the passing game with quarterback Brock Osweiler and receivers Gerrell Robinson, Aaron Pflugrad, and Mike Willie all moving on from their college days in Tempe.
Todd Graham talked early on about how Norvell’s offense would strive to have a 60-40 run-to-pass ratio, and by the end of the 2012 season he was true to his word with the Devils throwing on 41 percent of their snaps. And of the 413 passing attempts, nearly 50 percent went to players at the wideout position for the Devils. Fast forward to 2013 with Rashad Ross and Jamal Miles moving on from their starting positions to account for nearly 30 percent of all throws coming from Arizona State signal callers. With spring camp now underway we can look at the production the Devils got last year from Ross and Miles and discuss who will be competing in March
and April to show they have what it takes to step into starting spots left by these departing seniors. These returning lettermen must make it count in the 14 practices before the summer break before newcomers like Ellis Jefferson, Ronald Lewis, Joe Morris, Cameron Smith, and Jaelen Strong give these veterans a run for their money in the fall as part of the incoming 2013 recruiting class.
Job Opening: X-Wide Receiver
Rashad Ross’ shoes will be tough ones to fill when you reference the tape in games where he showed off his top-end speed blowing past both corners and safeties and his ability to make defenders miss in open space. Thanks to the work of Bill Connelly of FootballOutsiders.com we can see that Ross was targeted 73 times in 2012 by Sun Devil quarterbacks Taylor Kelly and Michael Eubank, tops on the team. What you may not have noticed, however, is the fact that Ross managed to catch just under 51 percent of those targeted attempts (tight end Chris Coyle and running back Marion Grice came in just under 80 percent for good measure), the second lowest ratio of targets-to-receptions outside of fellow wideout Kyle Middlebrooks, who made good on a mere 25 percent. This goes to show that maybe speed isn’t everything and perhaps in this offensive scheme, it’s more the case of production over anything else. And that’s where we transition to the group of spring participants before the 2013 recruiting class gets their shot at improving the numbers seen above.
Alonzo Agwuenu finished the season backing up Ross at this position and looks to get a first shot over the next month at becoming the starter. At 6’4” he shows a different look in terms of personnel in this scheme, as it is spot normally running slants, posts, and go-routes. He only recorded 11 catches, as it took him a while to get started during his first season in Tempe as a Junior College transfer, but he finished strong with his first and only touchdown of the season coming in the bowl game. While he won’t provide anywhere near the speed of Ross, he has shown the ability to pull balls down over the top and could be used as an Plan B red zone and third down target by Taylor Kelly. At this point, he looks to be a placeholder for a more athletic receiver in the fall to replace him, but could give Kevin Ozier a run for his money at the Y or 5 receiver spot along with redshirt sophomore Gary Chambers.
Job Opening: Z-Wide Receiver
This is a position in Norvell’s offense that holds many names, be it the Z, 2, or traditional split end. But make no mistake; this is a position that could really become pivotal in this offense in 2013 if utilized by the proper players. Jamal Miles really took a step back in 2012, unable to find the end zone by neither ground nor air after scoring six combined in 2011.
Sophomore Richard Smith looked like a budding star in the 2012 opener against Northern Arizona, starting in place of Miles who had been suspended by Graham. But he had a tough time finding much action down the stretch. He looks to battle players like senior Kyle Middlebrooks and redshirt freshman Frederick Gammage for snaps with the first team early on.
What a story it would be if Middlebrooks finally fulfilled the potential that shined through during the 2010 season when he nearly brought a kick back for a touchdown in a loss on the road against Wisconsin in a game that really symbolized the Dennis Erickson years. He has bounced back and forth between wide receiver and running back during his first three years so it will be interesting to see how he handles continuity for a change being in his second year in the system under position coach DelVaughn Alexander.
Whether it’s Smith, Middlebrooks, or Gammage, speed and elusiveness won’t be much of a problem at this position.
With a returning starting quarterback and a two-headed monster at running back, wide receiver really looks to be the on-going challenge with the ASU offense in 2013. It struggled with consistency throughout 2012, but as is the case with many position battles in the spring; with more reps in practice potentially comes better results with the right players. Whether these players can hold on to starting spots by the end of the summer, however, is something we’ll have to wait and see.