Ball in hand, Kerry Taylor looked up from where he rested flat on his back along the near sideline inside the Dickey Dome, cocked his neck at an awkward angle and mugged for the camera.
Yes, practice is fun again.
After a year of frustration, the senior wide receiver has a new lease on football life. It arrived in the spring in the form of first-year coordinator Noel Mazzone's no huddle offense, a gift Taylor is continuing to become familiar with and savor.
"The system we have this year is so much better because it gives our playmakers the opportunity to have the ball in open spaces and then make plays," Taylor said. "Last year we didn't really have a great variety in the plays that we ran and our offense was pretty predictable. This year we're mixing it up a lot, keeping teams off balance, different formations and just the whole tempo of how we run our offense is going to wear teams out and it should be pretty exciting."
As a junior, Taylor started eight of the nine games he played in and had 23 catches for 276 yards. He was one of the most heavily relied upon players at the position, finishing in the top four in both categories, but he was unhappy and there was even talk he might not return to ASU.
Mazzone's arrival reinvigorated Taylor, who spent the offseason pulling double duty on his workouts. He'd train in the weight room with his team, but also do extra sessions at nearby Triple Threat Sports Performance. Taylor now tips the scales at 200 pounds -- up about five from last season -- but hasn't lost a step.
"I feel great, I feel the best I every have," Taylor said. "I didn't put on a lot of weight but I put on a lot of muscle. I feel more sturdy and stronger in my routes but the speed and quickness is all still there so this is the best I've felt out there."
Head coach Dennis Erickson has noticed Taylor's development and improved approach to practice, born out a belief in what he and his teammates are being asked to do. The lone senior at the position -- and one of just 12 on the roster, fewest at ASU since 1985 -- Taylor has an important new role.
"He's a leader as a senior and he's a guy out there, what Kerry is, Kerry is a guy who can make catches, run the routes, probably the most disciplined as far as running routes, probably the most consistent catching the football," Erickson said. "He's got a lot of experience. He can help all those other guys because we're pretty young out there in a lot of areas but there's a lot of talent there so he can help teach then and he's sort of taken some of those younger guys under his wing and helped them improve."
Taylor is competing for the first-string spot at flanker, which is crowed with talent, as are all the receiver positions. It's a good problem to have according to the former Hamilton High standout, who said there will be a need for depth on the unit given the way the Sun Devils will play this season.
"The offense is really buying into the system and picking it up really well," Taylor said. "The quarterbacks are making great reads and we're just getting the ball to the receivers and running backs and it's allowing us to make plays.
"It's great with the offense we have now, we're going to need everybody. If one or two guys go down, you need that depth to keep things going, keep up this fast paced offense, keep guys fresh and give it to the defense every play."
Up to speed
A continuing theme throughout practice -- including in Thursday's session -- is the increased speed available on offense. It's been significantly ramped up via the most recent recruiting class, which included junior college receivers George Bell and Mike Willie, freshman hybrid receiver/running back Kyle Middlebrooks and freshman running back Deantre Lewis. The freshmen have been extremely involved in the offense through the first week-and-a-half of camp.
"It's something we've been working on for a couple years," Erickson said. "Finally we do have some speed back there which to me is what it's all about. You've got to be able to make big plays in football today and to score points. It's too hard to drive it 80 yards all the time with these defenses. We've added quite a bit of speed to our offensive football team and hopefully it will pay off."
Erickson made his strongest hint yet that both freshmen will earn their way off the redshirt list following Thursday's practice when asked what kind of role the two will have.
"Probably a big role because they're both 10.5 (second) sprinters," he said. "You can do a lot of things with Kyle in the slot, moving him and things like that and then Deantre looks like an awfully good running back. We haven't scrimmaged but once (though)."