(Photo: Scotty Bara/WCSN)
It’s going to be a very different season for the new look Arizona State Sun Devils. With many changing parts, ranging from the starting quarterback to the secondary, this season is viewed by some as a rebuilding year, a loose term in college football, for the Sun Devils.
One position that will undoubtedly have the spotlight on it as ASU tries to reverse its fortune from last season will be wide receiver. It’s been a position group that has been up and down ever since Jaelen Strong, a current Houston Texan, left two years ago. Two receivers in particular, Fred Gammage, a fifth year senior, and Ellis Jefferson, a redshirt junior, who have each contributed in many facets for the Sun Devils, will need to step up as veterans in both their play and leadership.
Gammage is a slot receiver who has only received sporadic playing time at wide receiver over his ASU career, having been featured more on special teams. His best offensive season came two years ago as a sophomore when he reeled in 16 catches for 127 yards.
It’s almost a certainty that he will be featured more heavily on offense this season, and thus his play will be even more important.
“Freddy is a slot and very, very shifty,” wide receivers coach Jay Norvell said. “He is showing a lot of savvy and craftiness for how to make plays in the middle of the field. He is working over linebackers and working a lot inside routes, so his toughness really needs to show there.”
Gammage also mentioned that he got faster this summer, making him more of a threat on deep balls than he has previously been.
His longest reception last season was for only 17 yards.
“I have worked on my explosive movements and routes down the field. I’d say I got faster this summer so a lot of deep shots I have been connecting on,” Gammage said.
He has amassed significantly more playing time on special teams than anywhere else so far in his career, which he takes as an honor and a big confidence booster.
“Our coaches say the best players play on special teams, so if you are on special teams that means the coaches see you as one of the better players. Right now I’m on the punt return team, so blocking on the line, I’m not really used to it, but any way I can help I will.”
Jefferson, who has also done a bit of everything for the team, also mentioned his explosiveness as something that he worked hard on to improve throughout the summer and into fall practices.
“With Coach Norvell coming in, one thing he wants to see is players getting more explosive, every route should be a deep route and I think that’s something we have all worked on and are doing a good job at,” he said.
The Denton, Texas native who caught 12 passes for 160 yards last season has the advantage of being the tallest wide receiver on the team at 6-foot-5, meaning he will have a more specialized role on the offense.
“Ellis is a big bodied kid that gives us good matchups physically,” Norvell said. “We need him to play strong on vertical plays and inside posts and 1-on-1 situations in the red zone.”
The adjustment period as a receiver may be seen as difficult for this season due to the uncertainty at quarterback, a stark contrast from last season, when Mike Bercovici had the job locked up from the get-go. However, neither receiver said it has affected their preparation for the season.
“No matter which quarterback is in, when the ball is thrown to me I’m going to catch it,” Jefferson said. “Sometimes I won’t even know which quarterback is in and I will go to the sidelines and Manny (Wilkins) or Brady (White) or Bryce (Perkins) will come up to me saying good job and I’ll be like ‘Oh you were at quarterback?”
Gammage added that they have had numerous reps with all of the quarterbacks and are extremely comfortable with whoever wins the job.
With their focus not being deterred by the quarterback battle, Jefferson and Gammage have become mentors to a lot of the younger wide receivers.
“We watch film all the time, just us and the other receivers,” Jefferson said. “Sometimes the quarterback will come in and we go through the plays.”
Both have become vocal leaders for the team after seeing how the upperclassmen did the same thing when they were younger. Jefferson has had a natural transition into the leadership role after living with Bercovici, Jordan Simone, and D.J. Foster last year, three of the team captains.
He has applied the qualities they showed him last year into this season.
“They set the standard of the house and of the team and now that I have three new people living with me, I’m trying to set the standard of the house and be a team leader because I’ve seen what team leaders have done in the past.”
Their leadership ability and their play during practices have caught the eye of head coach Todd Graham, which he attributed largely to Norvell.
“They look faster because they are playing faster because they have less fundamental flaws in their technique so I’ve been pleased with how those guys are developing every day,” Graham said.
As the season approaches, both players excited to help the team smash the lower expectations that the team has.
“It puts gas into the fire,” Jefferson said. “We are just waiting for our moment; it’s three weeks from today against NAU. We will be very excited. We are going to come out like Usain Bolt in the blocks, so we will be ready.”