(Photo: Scotty Bara/WCSN)
Last season, Arizona State averaged 299 passing yards per game, finishing as the 20th-ranked aerial attack in the nation.
In 2016, however, coach Jay Norvell has a good chance to outdo what last year’s passing attack accomplished in just his first season with the program.
“We’ve got a good group of kids,” Norvell said. “We’ve got a mixture of guys who have played some, guys that are new, it’s an athletic group. It’s been a group that’s worked really hard. I’ve been impressed with the way that they’ve come to work every day and focused on what we’re asking them to do.”
The team will retain the likes of Tim White, Ellis Jefferson, Jalen Harvey and Fred Gammage, all long-tenured players in the program, while also returning a healthy Cam Smith back into the fold.
Yet the more under-the-radar advantage is going to come via the freshman class, as Norvell will now get to deploy the former top receiver recruit in the nation according to ESPN in N’Keal Harry, as well as California native Kyle Williams, who ESPN ranked as the 68th athlete recruit in 2015.
While Harry will garner most of the attention – and rightfully so – it’s Williams who has also stood out to the coaches as an underrated contributor.
“[Harry and Williams are] both very mature young guys,” Norvell said. “They want to be good, they’ve come in here and tried to make plays, you know. We tell all of our guys we don’t recruit anybody to redshirt, we recruit you to come in and help our program. They’ve taken that to heart, just come here every day and competed, they’ve both showed a lot of understanding of what were trying to do, which is the big thing.
“If you don’t know what to do, it’s hard for you to do things right.”
Not only has Williams received reps at receiver, the coaching staff has also tested him out at safety in recent practices, forcing him to take on a larger workload early on.
Though the transition to the college game is known to be rough, and the freshman has experienced those difficulties, Williams has a brand new outlook on what it takes to be successful at the collegiate level, due in part to the veterans he plays with every day and their guidance.
“I just learned that you’ve got to press the restart button everyday,” Williams said. “You’ve got to start fresh, you’ve got to come out there with an attitude everyday and just be ready to compete. Just be ready to get at it with your brothers.”
Jefferson, now in his fourth year with the program, has had a hand in bridging that gap for the newcomers, placing an emphasis on preparation in the offseason.
“Just in the summertime, we make sure that just us as a group watch film together, we make sure we got two hours of film in,” Jefferson said. “We made sure we all went to skill development when it was time to go and made those connections with the quarterbacks and it’s already showing on the field. It looks like we’ve already been doing it for at least four years.”
Last season as a redshirt sophomore, Jefferson finished with 12 receptions for 160 yards. He acknowledges that the team now has more quality receivers on its roster than it ever has in his time with the program.
Still, he doesn’t feel any pressure to perform over his head.
“I’m just doing what I do,” Jefferson said. “I feel like I’ve had my best camp that I’ve had and I feel really good. I feel, actually, the best that I’ve ever felt, honestly. I feel like I’m bigger and stronger and I’m getting out of my breaks really good.
“If anything comes my way, I’m catching it.”
For Williams, the competition and the recognition at this point has only propelled him to do more.
“It’s just a blessing,” Williams said. “[The recognition] makes me want to work harder, it makes me want to step up my game actually and bring my game to another level every day.”
In Norvell’s first year, he has been spoiled with the crop of talent he has to work with. The receivers have been self-motivated to this point and that has made the battle for the starting spots all the more intense. Given that, based off of the sheer volume of able bodies alone, the Sun Devils have a good chance to deploy their most talented crop of receivers in recent memory.
“We’ve got good competition,” Norvell said. “I think we’ve got young guys that are hungry, that want to play and really that’s the most important thing you can have is generate competition. Coaches can yell and scream all they want, but until a guy feels like there is a guy behind him that could beat him out, you don’t get their full attention. I think we’ve got seven or eight guys that can play.
“Now it’s just about them carving out a role for themselves and to see how much they contribute. That’s kind of up to them,” he said.