Accustomed to Division I level, Aiyuk eyeing breakout year in 2019
Even if for just a brief moment, Brandon Aiyuk was concerned he might be too tired for the first spring practice of 2019. He was still awake late into the night, as the hours ticked away before ASU was set to open up its spring session on Feb. 5.
The rising senior receiver just couldn’t sleep. He was too excited.
“I’m like, ‘I can’t sleep, I’m about to be tired during practice,” he said. “But I was wide awake, man.”
He came home the next day after what he described as a “great” practice and crashed. But it was worth it.
“Everyday after practice, I go home, watch the film, do something, go back watch film again,” Aiyuk said. “And I can’t wait to get back out to practice. I’m just excited to get to practice every day, excited to be on the field with this team. It’s just fun.”
When you think about it, though, Aiyuk’s unbridled excitement for what lies ahead of him makes a lot of sense.
After a long period of transition into the speed, pressure and all-around challenge of playing at the Division I level, Aiyuk is starting to feel like and play like himself and has positioned himself to be one of the Sun Devils’ top targets in 2019.
“The improvement and the emergence of Brandon Aiyuk were obvious,” ASU receivers coach Charlie Fisher said. “And that was exciting and that’s a testament to his hard work and obviously the work that we as an offensive staff have done with him in trying to really fit him into our offense.”
“We saw the emergence of Brandon Aiyuk,” Fisher added. “But Brandon’s got so much more in him, improvement-wise.”
Aiyuk transferred to ASU ahead of the 2018 season from Sierra College in Rocklin, California, where he amassed 1,533 receiving yards and 19 receiving touchdowns in two years. As a return specialist, Aiyuk exploded for 908 yards on a combined 39 kick and punt returns in his career.
But if you dig further into his stats, there was a noticeable jump from one year to the next.
Through the air, 960 of his yards and 14 of his touchdowns came in year two at Sierra. After totaling 177 return yards as a freshman, Aiyuk averaged 38 yards per kick return and 22 yards per punt return — for a grand total of 731 yards — in 2017.
The plan? Do it again.
“It took me a while to get used to (the junior college level), and then my second year was my breakout year,” Aiyuk said. “So, I’m hoping to do the same thing here.”
In his first year at Arizona State, there was a similarly clear learning curve for Aiyuk.
It’s not like he was particularly bad early on in 2018, but his numbers through six weeks or so were nothing special. By the time ASU’s bye week rolled around, Aiyuk had nine receptions for just over 100 yards.
Again, not bad, but certainly not eye-catching. Those kind of stats take time.
“It just takes time for those guys, whether you’re a junior college player or a high school player get it, and figure it out before you can play to your speed and play fast,” Fisher said. “So, really good to see his emergence.”
It was in a Nov. 3 home victory over Utah when everything clicked for the then-junior. Coincidentally enough, everything clicked for ASU in that game, too; the Sun Devils knocked off what was, at the time, a Top 15 team, by a final of 38-20.
Aiyuk went off for 101 yards on six catches and added 29 yards in the return game.
Even today, Aiyuk points to that day as the day it clicked, but not because of anything that happened during the game.
He could feel it even before kickoff. Something was different.
“I think the Utah game was when I fully started to get really comfortable and just be myself,” he said. “It was just different, before the game, I just had a different feeling going into the game. It was like, you’re ready to go out to practice. You’re not concerned with who’s going to be there, all the people in the stands.”
Aiyuk didn’t stop there. He started to find his stride on special teams in the final three weeks, totaling 256 return yards on 11 attempts. More notably, though, he eclipsed the 100-yard mark in receiving for a second time, picking up 106 yards, five catches and a score in his team’s memorable rivalry win down in Tucson.
Tack on nine catches for 61 yards in the Las Vegas Bowl, and suddenly, Aiyuk’s season at-large looked pretty good for a first-year junior college transfer. For perspective, Aiyuk’s numbers in ASU’s final five games spread out over an entire season, would be equivalent to about a 57-receptions, 770-yard campaign.
One Would agree that those numbers would constitute a solid year.
“It just takes time,” Aiyuk said. “Just settling in, getting comfortable. The more I played, the more comfortable I got, and the more the game slowed down for me.”
Obviously, Aiyuk isn’t going to fully replace someone like N’Keal Harry, who left likely ASU’s biggest hole on the offensive side of the ball.
But, as he started to prove towards the end of 2018, he’s certainly going to help, and will probably do so in a big way.
“Guys don’t play 12 years,” Fisher said. “They cycle in and they cycle out and new guys have to take over, but certainly the emergence of Brandon Aiyuk helped soften the loss, so to speak, of N’Keal Harry, and now we’ll see what happens.”
And while no spot in the starting rotation is rarely ever set in stone in spring, Aiyuk knows the opportunity he’s setting himself up for with an opening atop the wide receiver pecking order.
He’s up for the challenge.
“I think I’ve kind of been placed into that role,” he said. “I need to take charge of it, and own it, and be that guy.”