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October 23, 2013
No determination to get better means no effort. No effort ensures your spot on the bench. Playing in his final season at Arizona State, senior wide receiver Kevin Ozier has no time for that.
In ASU's previous six games combined, Ozier had nine receptions for 138 yards. Against Washington, Ozier had his most productive game, leading the team with eight receptions for 88 yards.
"He did a phenomenal job," head coach Todd Graham said. made a great impact in the [game].
"That's why I talk about the physical nature of this game. The mental impacts the physical so much. He was prepared. (Wide receivers) coach (DelVaughn) Alexander and offensive coordinator (Mike) Norvell had him prepared for that and he did a great job."
Ozier stepped up at a time when his team needed him most as leading sophomore wide receiver Jaelen Strong was sidelined most of the game with an ankle injury and sophomore wide receiver Richard Smith was also not available for the game after an undisclosed injury in practice.
"It was a good thing," Ozier said. "I do view myself as one of the leaders on this team and it's good for me to get out there and lead by example on the field making plays I felt like that helped me as a leader on the team; people respect me more."
After Strong, Ozier remains the next leading wide receiver -- excluding tight ends and running backs -- with 17 catches for 266 yards.
"I see a lot of improvement in my game," Ozier said. "I got better running routes, getting separation from defenders and blocking better."
While Ozier is continuing to step up his game in the hopes of becoming a bigger leader production-wise on the field, so are the rest of the wide receivers.
"It's always a competition," Ozier said. "Every receiver wants to play. If I said it wasn't, I'd be lying. Everyone wants to ball every play. Jaelen wants the ball every play, (sophomore running back) D.J. (Foster) wants the ball, everyone wants it. You just got to go perform at practice and if you perform at practice, the coaches will get the ball to you."
Through seven games, 26 percent of junior quarterback Taylor Kelly's completions have gone to Strong, and 65.9 percent of ASU's receptions have come from either Strong, Foster or senior running back Marion Grice.
Developing on-field chemistry with Kelly is something Ozier strives for in hopes of carving out an even bigger role.
"He's the one throwing us the ball so everyone wants a good relationship with TK (Kelly)," Ozier said. "After practice, sometimes catch balls, on the weekends, just go talk to him and even after practice when we eat lunch I ask him, 'Okay on this route where do you look and how should I run this route differently?'"
Kelly following Saturday's win over Washington that this year's team is closer and more committed, with players often staying to watch film until 11 p.m. It's something Ozier takes upon himself at his position group.
"I get the receivers together, we watch film, we go over opponents' film," Ozier said. "Even just bonding as a team, I got the receivers together and we went bowling, just so we can build that bond."
It's no secret. ASU has struggled in several phases of its special teams this season.
Most challenging for the Sun Devils through seven games are the punt and punt return elements.
Senior cornerback Robert Nelson has struggled. He's not fair caught balls he should have, including against Notre Dame when a critical lapse in the second half cost ASU 15-plus yards and had its offense pinned at the 1-yard line. He's had other miscues, including a muffed punt against Washington, and a decision to cover a punt that had almost stopped moving and led to a stern talking to from Graham.
In ASU's first public practice after that performance, Nelson split first-team reps with junior safety Damarious Randall, the most action Randall has seen in the role at practice to this point in the season.
"With my (groin strain) injury I fell behind on a lot of stuff," Randall said. "So first I was just trying to get back right at safety and learning the defense so because of that I fell behind in my punt return game which the coaches and I are trying to get back right now."
Coming out of Mesa Community College in Mesa, Ariz., Randall was not only recruited by ASU to play defensive back but also for his ability as a return man.
During his sophomore year at Mesa C.C., Randall averaged 18.4 yards per return on punts with two touchdowns and 28.2 yards per return on 19 kickoff returns.
Being successful in major college football, though, is a bigger challenge.
"The ball is a lot higher but even more has a lot more importance," Randall said. "It has a lot more meaning for me at this level so I can't drop it and I can't let it get past me when I get the opportunity. That's number one priority."
Graham has repeatedly and consistently pointed to special teams failings as something that has been costly for the Sun Devils and needs to be improved if they want to achieve their season goals.
"Oh special teams is the most important," Randall said. "We know for our team that special teams will be the difference between winning a Pac-12 championship and not winning a Pac-12 championship. We are taking it very seriously."
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