When Noel Mazzone took over as the offensive coordinator last year, Arizona State moved to an up-tempo multiple spread offense, relying more heavily on its passing game. Despite the loss of projected starting senior wide receiver T.J. Simpson, who tore his ACL, a veteran group of receivers will play a vital role in the success of the offense next season.
Without Simpson, there are still four seniors listed at wide receiver but they have battled their fair share of injuries as well. Senior receiver Gerell Robinson suffered a slight shoulder separation during Saturday's scrimmage that kept him out for the rest of the day, senior receiver Mike Willie has not participated in contact drills this spring after offseason shoulder surgery and senior receiver Aaron Pflugrad has been dealing with vertigo.
The lack of seniors on the field has allowed the younger, inexperience receivers to work with the first team, but the seniors are keeping themselves engaged by staying after practice as a unit numerous times to work on route running and pass catching.
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"I'm very pleased," wide receivers coach Steve Broussard said. "The guys are still working hard. We've been dropping a little and they take it upon themselves to do some extra stuff on the jug machine. The effort-wise is there. Us making plays is coming. It's a slow process right now but we've let three starters not practice and it's given some young guys the opportunity to step up and get some more reps."
Pflugrad was cleared to participate in contact drills Thursday. He played his role as an inside receiver like last season but for the first time at ASU also took reps at outside receiver with the first team, an area lacking depth and experience without Willie and Simpson. Comfortable at both positions, he said it feels natural at outside receiver. Pflugrad's last appearance on the field at outside receiver was at Oregon, where he spent two seasons before transferring in 2009.
"We had lost a couple of guys and we were just trying to find some guys," Broussard said. "He played a little bit out there when was at Oregon so he's a little bit comfortable out there. He's a football player. We can put him at any position and he adjusts because he understands the offense and he understands how to play the game."
"I feel like I definitely need to lead by example so I have the chance to do that today was great," Pflugrad said. "Just getting in those young guys ears because they're talented and they definitely have the skillset to do it and we're going to need them so I just got to be a leader for them."
Named one of two Hard Hat champions for his work in the weight room, the 180 pound Pflugrad said despite the vertigo he tried to stay in good shape to prepare for the fast pace offense, and upped his bench press to 320 pounds. He felt a little rusty coming back, but thinks the number of injuries gives a great opportunity for the younger receivers.
"I think it's a great for the younger guys to get quite a bit of reps out there and develop," Pflugrad said. "It's kind of a situation where now the older guys who have game experience are playing catch up but then you have that many guys with experience and timing so it's pretty good."
A quick look at the stat sheet from Saturday's scrimmage shows some new targets for junior quarterback Brock Osweiler. Listed as a third string receiver on the spring depth chart, sophomore wide receiver Kevin Ozier led the group with five catches for 121 yards and one touchdown on the day. Others, including sophomore J.J. Holliday and redshirt freshman Kevin Anderson are making gradual strides in practice as they become more familiar with the offense.
"Well J.J. is starting to be a little more vocal and be a little more accountable to himself, first of all, and to his teammates," Broussard said. "I see Kevin, he's still swimming a little bit but he's starting to get it. The more reps he gets, the more comfortable he gets. I think as more reps he gets, I think you'll start finding him relaxing a little bit more and use more of his abilities and things he can do."
"They're getting better," head coach Dennis Erickson said. "They've got a ways to go, there's no question about that as far as consistency is concerned but they're young. It's hard to play in this league when you're young if you have too many of them but J.J.'s getting better, (junior A.J.) Pickens is starting to play well for us. We moved him outside this week."
Not only are the coaches preaching consistency with the younger receivers, but also for senior wide receiver George Bell, who had impressive back-to-back practices this week after an earlier issue with drops this spring. Using his speed to get by the defense last spring, plenty was expected last season for the San Diego, Calif., native and Southwestern Community College transfer. He didn't have a catch in five of his eight games played last season.
"[Dropping balls] doesn't really mess with you mentally, it just makes you over anxious for the next ball and when the next one comes, if you're too anxious you'll mess around and drop the next one," Bell said. "The thing that keeps me into it [are] the coaches. The coaches keep confidence in me and they just keep me in so that helps out a lot."
Finishing the season with nine receptions for 84 yards, he's using his experiences from his only FBS season as a guide on what to improve rather than his two years at community college.
"Work ethic is key especially here at this division, at this level," Bell said. "Without work ethic you won't be anything. The offseason is the most important part of the football year and I learned that here last year through the offseason. I was still trying to catch up on things. Now that I got things caught onto, I think I'll have a way better year than I did last year."
Last season, Bell said the receivers were trying to catch up on running certain routes during game time situations. With the different possible outcomes from one play, the multiple spread offense is a difficult scheme to understand for an incoming receiver, but pays dividends when the offense is in sync.
"The system, especially the system we have put in is hard to catch on at first because we've got to trust in this and then figure out, 'Ok, if I run this route, it's going to open up this, but I still can get this ball.' And that's the biggest thing with us is just figuring out what can happen in what coverage, stuff like that. So once we figured it out, we're rolling now."