PAYSON, Arizona — It doesn’t take an expert to look at the numbers that ASU wide receiver Jaelen Strong put up in his redshirt sophomore year and say he is great.
In fact, at 6-foot-3 and 212 pounds, with great athleticism and hands to match, it doesn’t take much more than a simple eye test.
Strong was a second-team All-Pac-12 wide receiver last year after catching 75 passes for 1,122 yards and seven touchdowns, and now has a whole year under his belt with the program after arriving late to camp last year. Offensive coordinator Mike Norvell said that Strong could be even better this year.
“I think (Jaelen Strong)’s improved everywhere,” he said. “When he first got here, he was very raw, just kind of came in in the beginning of August and didn’t get a whole lot of an offseason or training. His training is exceptional, he’s in a tremendous place physically, but his development as an intermediate route runner was something that was big. He’s running extremely well, working on being the complete receiver with his releases, with how he’s finishing at the top of the route, and finishing every play.”
But outside of Strong’s production, who is there to look for on the Sun Devil offense?
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Outside of starting running back D.J. Foster (63 catches, 653 yards, four touchdowns), the next highest leading receiver returning to the Sun Devils is Cameron Smith, who caught just eight passes for 129 yards in 2014. Smith is one of the many guys Norvell will have to rely on in the passing game coming into next season.
“I’m really excited about Cameron Smith. I think he’s come along and done some great things. He is a very, very explosive receiver that can stretch the field and has tremendous hands, tremendous route running,” he said.
Redshirt junior Gary Chambers, who did not play at all last season, has been taking the majority of first-team snaps in camp alongside Strong, and is another guy that intrigues Norvell.
“Gary Chambers is a guy that has really developed over the last few years, and put himself in a position now that he can help us, and obviously get out there and make some plays for us,” he said.
Chambers has a competitive relationship with Strong, which drives both to new levels, Chambers said.
“I know for a fact that Jaelen (Strong) is going to do what he does, so it’s just up to me on my side of the field to do what I do. As long as I’m doing everything right, extra space or not, I should be good,” he said.
Ellis Jefferson, a redshirt freshman, has also emerged from the fold as someone who has impressed during camp, Norvell said.
“Ellis Jefferson here this last week has done some really good things,” he said. “I think we got about five or six guys who we’re going to see and are working in that rotation, and I’m excited about that group of guys.”
Jefferson has been dedicated to studying his craft, and said that he and roommate Mike Bercovici, the backup quarterback, have been going over the playbook every night to prepare.
“(Mike Bercovici) helps me go over the playbook at night when we had skill development, and we go over the playbook and he quizzes me, and I’ll just tell him what all the receivers have, and (Bercovici and starting quarterback Taylor Kelly) help me every day,” he said. They tell me what they see, and I tell them what I saw, so we’ll just fix it so we can connect.”
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For Norvell, fall camp is the time to try to figure out the right mix and situation for each receiver to help the offense be successful.
“We’re trying to get that competition going, and we want to see who’s going to rise to the top and who we can rely on snap in and snap out,” he said. “We’re evaluating everything they’re doing every practice, every meeting, and we’re giving those guys an opportunity to prove themselves and prove it between the white lines.
Norvell also said it may not be up to the the three first-string guys to get the right amount of production for the offense.
“For us, playing at the tempo we want to play at, it’s going to take more than three guys, so we want to see guys with that first group,” he said. “Maybe, if it’s only five or ten plays, they’re getting that chance to work with Taylor (Kelly), to work with (Mike Bercovici) and be able to be out there with that first unit.”
ASU ranked 23rd in the nation last year in total passing yards with 3,723, an average of 265.9 passing yards per game.
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