(Photo: Gabrielle Mercer/WCSN)
As he had been doing all morning, N’Keal Harry broke off the line of scrimmage with the snap of the ball, eased past the unlucky cornerback tasked with covering him and cut sharply towards the sideline.
With his defender trailing steps behind, and nothing but green grass between him and the end zone, ASU’s standout sophomore receiver turned to catch what was a sure-fire touchdown.
Instead, he looked up to watch the ball sail over his head, landing 15 yards farther downfield.
A disappointed Harry walked back to the sideline, where quarterback Manny Wilkins, the one who delivered the apparent overthrow, was waiting.
The two key offensive cogs conversed, motioned and pointed, trying to iron out the miscommunication that led to the blown scoring chance.
“It’s all about timing,” Wilkins told Harry, identifying the key ingredient missing in the would-be TD toss.
Minutes later, Wilkins targeted Harry again. With the ball inside the defense’s 10-yard line, the junior quarterback rifled a pinpoint bullet to Harry, who snagged the ball in traffic and tapped both feet in-bounds in the corner end zone, with the awareness one would come to expect from the sophomore receiver. This time, the timing was everything, turning a tight-windowed throw into a highlight-worthy score.
It was just two of many plays, in one of many preseason practices. Yet, it was the epitome of a developing Sun Devil aerial attack: a potentially potent unit still perfecting its execution.
“We still have a long way to go,” junior receiver Jalen Harvey said. “But when game one (vs New Mexico State) comes around, you are going to see something.”
Harvey, the resident veteran of ASU’s young group of wide outs, was a true freshman when Taylor Kelly and Jalen Strong engineered one of the best Sun Devil pass attacks in recent memory. He played five games while Mike Bercovici averaged nearly 300 yards through the air per game the season after.
This year, he is one of the leaders of a wide receiver group capable of becoming an elite unit on ASU’s offense.
To do so though, the team will need its budding star in Harry to not just repeat the heights of his breakout freshman season, but better them.
“He’s one of the hardest working guys; for a highly-recruited guy, he really works hard,” Graham said of Harry on Sunday.
“Obviously he did a good job for us (last year), but I look for him to be much improved because (he’s) just maturing.”
As the number two receiver in 2016, the Chandler High School graduate exploded for 58 catches, 659 yards, and 5 touchdowns. But that was with senior Tim White attracting plenty of attention from opposing secondaries, helping cover for the inevitable mistakes made by virtually every true freshman.
“He was not in shape the way he is in shape this year,” Graham said, referring to Harry’s freshman season. “He struggled a little bit, because it was his freshman year and he just didn’t understand how fast it was going to be in the training.”
This season, with White graduated, Harry will be the focal point of a young and talented offense, the first guy his quarterbacks will look to when the result hangs in the balance.
Head coach Todd Graham thinks the 6-foot-4 star can fill that role, and that the final pieces of his game are close to being put together.
“The key is having the same application in the classroom,” Graham said. “Learning football, mastering his craft, not having false steps, not having missed assignments, all those things, that’s the biggest area.
“I want those guys when you ask them, ‘What separates you from everyone else?’ I want them to say (their) character, how (they) serve (the) team and (their) effort every day and (their) discipline.”
While Harry continues to polish up the final details of his game, he won’t have to look far to find a perfect role model to take after.
“Just putting it all on the line for them, not being selfish,” teammate Harvey said when asked what he is focusing on ahead of the upcoming season. “Sometimes as a wide receiver you want the ball in your hands, but at the same time, being a wide receiver, it comes with more than that.”
When it comes to maturation, Harvey is at the top of the list. The El Cerrito, California-born starter’s four years on campus are the most of all his receiving teammates; the only other upperclassman in the wide-outs room is walk-on senior Ryan Jenkins, a former Tennessee transfer who played just four games last year.
Harvey however, doesn’t shy away from his role as a leader, instead gladly taking on the challenge of aiding his younger teammates.
“It’s just a bond,” Harvey said of his relationship with the other receivers. “They look at me as a big brother, and sometimes I have to embrace that.”
The experience brought to the table by the junior slot target is rare among a receiving corps filled with underclassmen and transfers. Sophomores John Humphrey, Kyle Williams, Ryan Newsome and Terrell Chatman have made waves with their dynamic play during this fall’s training camp, but are still largely unknown commodities when it comes to performing on game day.
The potential in the receivers’ room is high, but ASU’s passing success will come down to the ability of Harry, Harvey and the rest of the group to connect with their quarterbacks on Saturdays. As Wilkins made clear during his conversation with Harry, one of the final hurdles to clear is more consistent communication, and timing, between the receivers and QBs.
After his post-practice media session Thursday, Harvey was headed off the field, but stopped when he saw Wilkins lobbing balls into the corner of the end zone. Harvey walked over to catch the back shoulder fades supplied by his first-team quarterback; it didn’t take long for Harry to follow, dazzling the last few straggling Camp Tontozona fans with several over-the-shoulder snags.
There are many factors that make up a productive passing game, but with a wide receiver group guided by the know-how of Harvey, physical gifts of Harry and ambitious effort of its new additions, perfecting communication and timing might be the only thing left for ASU’s auspicious aerial attack to conquer.