WR progress could broaden out offense

With the exception of junior wide receiver Jaelen Strong, for the past two years Arizona State has had to heavily rely on its tight ends and running backs to be on the receiving end of senior quarterback Taylor Kelly's strikes down the field.
This year, those involved would like a different result and it all starts with the ability to have versatility and accountability at the wide receiver position.
"We're going to play with six guys and we're going to go fast," ASU wide receivers coach DelVaughn Alexander said. "Looking at the talent that you see and looking at the diversity and the group coming together, when one guy gets tired, the next guy goes in and I want to feel great about the next guy that goes in."
For Alexander to feel good about the players he is putting out on the field, they need to show they are ready physically and mentally on game day and he has some promising options.
Sophomore wide receiver Cameron Smith is a speedy and versatile threat who can be used either at the 5-receiver (slot) or the 2-receiver (field) position, junior Gary Chambers has been steadily improving, redshirt freshman Ronald Lewis has made signficant strides over the past year, redshirt freshman Ellis Jefferson has started to look better after a rough start to camp and sophomore Fred Gammage is looking very reliable.
One of the keys for ASU to again be the potent 39.7 points per game offense it was last season is to find players to complement Strong at the wide receiver position and take off some of the pressure to find a running back or tight end to catch another big portion of the balls from Kelly.
Last year, it was junior running back D.J. Foster who caught the second most passes on the team with 63 receptions for 653 yards, behind Strong's 75 catches for 1122 yards.
One of the best running backs in the Pac-12 last year with 14 rushing touchdowns and 996 yards on the ground, a departed Marion Grice caught the third highest passes on the team catching 50 passes for 438 yards and scored another six receiving touchdowns for the Sun Devils.
In the 2012 season, it was tight end Chris Coyle who carried the receiving load with 57 catches for 696 yards in addition to Grice and Foster who were also the second and third players with the highest passes caught that year.
"I am really tied of watching D.J. (Foster) catch balls," ASU head coach Todd Graham said.
With Grice gone, ASU wants Foster to spend more time carrying the football and less time in the slot. While he'll still likely get some reps there, and will always be a receiving threat out of the backfield, an emerging receiving corps could lessen the reliance on Foster in the passing game. That would be especially beneficial with Coyle also departed and the Sun Devils returning just seven catches at the tight end position from last season.
Looking to the true wide receivers, the 5-foot-11 187-pound Smith looks to be the next man up alongside Strong.
"Cameron (Smith) is definitely dynamic," Alexander said. "Cameron can definitely catch the ball and get vertical and get in and out of a cut and you can see that. He's really smart and versatile and the way we see Cameron is using his strengths, which is his smarts, (and) using his athleticism. But again, those roles aren't definitely yet but there's definitely a place for him to play."
Smith got thrown into the mix last year as a true freshman, but only had eight catches for 129 yards. Smith noted that being in a no huddle tempo offense with such conditioning demands was really hard due to being tired and having to think quickly at the same time.
This year, he looks to be running routes efficiently and has improved his blocking skills more playing in the slot and at the 2-receiver position at times.
"In the slot I have to block the linebackers so I have to be more firm with my stance and blocking them and sometimes you have to go outside and be balanced because you have to be more shifty so you got to be able to do both," Smith said.
Blocking has become a very critical component for the ASU wide receivers and graduate assistant Aaron Pflugard said the wide receivers group has the saying, "No block no rock."
"It being year three (under Todd Graham), we've definitely had a big focus on run blocking out on the perimeter so we definitely have been working on getting more physical, getting after those [defensive backs], after those linebackers and kind of getting our head in there," Chambers said.
Pflugard is a former ASU wide receiver and was actually a senior when Chambers was redshirting. As a GA, Pflugard is sharing his own first-hand experience with the players and said one of the biggest challenges at the wide receiver position in college is getting everything down mentally.
"A lot of times guys will come in and they'll study the playbook over the summer and they'll say, 'I'm ready to roll coach,' but they don't know the adjustments and seeing all the coverages and it just takes time and experience," Pflugard said.
Appearing to have a solid spot in the rotation, Smith looks to be a leading option in the two receiver sets -- when ASU is in formations with two running backs and one tight end or vice versa -- opposite Strong, who has the 9-receiver spot locked down. In three wide receiver sets with Strong still at the 9-receiver spot, Smith could play in the slot with Lewis at the 2-receiver spot or Smith could line up at the 2-receiver position with Chambers in the slot.
Whichever combination the coaches decide to put on the field, there is the solid top six rotation currently consisting of Strong, Smith, Chambers, Jefferson, Lewis and Gammage. Freshman wide receiver Jalen Harvey appears headed for a redshirt season and has been in a scout team jersey. Harvey had been battling with Ellis Jefferson for the second-team 9-receiver (boundary) position behind Strong.
Junior wide receiver Eric Lauderdale doesn't seem to be in the mix either as Gammage has gotten a lot of the two-deep rotational looks over Lauderdale, who has a redshirt year he can also use if coaches elect to go that route.
Boateng takes first team reps at Devil backer
Sophomore defensive lineman Edmond Boateng worked with the first-team at Devil backer for the first time Wednesday since becoming a Sun Devil in the spring.
"Was I surprised? Yes I actually was because it came out of nowhere," Boateng said. "It was off guard. I got a text from the Devil position coach (Paul) Randolph. I was actually being coached by him when I first came here so it was funny, but I just got a text and he was like, 'Hey come see me,' and I was like hmm okay and all of a sudden I was being moved to Devil and I was like, 'Wow this is something I have to take on and they are trying to get me in the starting rotation.'"
Graham said this move will hopefully challenge junior linebacker Antonio Longino -- who had been taking first-team reps at Devil -- to keep working hard and develop more. In addition, Graham said defensive coordinator Keith Patterson called Boateng the most improved player in camp up to this point.
"Best pass rusher we've had out here in camp," Graham said. "Just quickness, explosiveness and he's powerful enough to handle playing a seven technique like we played last year so gives us some versatility.
"This guy has an unbelievable spirit everyday, man, he's coaching from the sideline, he's just playing with a passion and you know we've found him a place for him to play."
Senior tight end De'Marieya Nelson has been taking fewer reps at the Devil backer position so it looks like with the addition of Boateng in the mix, Nelson might get even more reps at his original tight end position.
Boateng has slimmed down to 260 pounds after arriving at ASU around 283 pounds with a lot of work he wanted to put into his body. Now that he's leaner and lighter, he is better suited for the Devil backer position he's been given a shot at.
Senior left tackle Jamil Douglas was back taking first team reps at left tackle after missing the past two days due to a family issue.
Freshman running back Kalen Ballage was going through the initial skill work at Wednesday's morning practice in a maroon jersey and then put on a green no contact jersey and went through warm ups as he appears closer to being fully cleared barring a setback.
For the first time in camp, senior safety Damarious Randall worked at Bandit instead of field safety with the first-team. Junior safety Jordan Simone was first-team at field safety in the install period and then redshirt freshman Marcus Ball was with the first-team at field safety in the team tempo period. The Sun Devils are looking at flipping the safeties at times based on situation.
After being in a scout team jersey Tuesday, redshirt freshman linebacker Chans Cox and junior offensive guard Devin Goodman were both not in a scout team jersey Wednesday. Graham said ASU is using scout team players more strategically this year than in the past.