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Weekend practice roundup: Offensive sleepers emerge

(Photo: Jason Galvin/WCSN)

The Arizona State football team wrapped up its final full weekend of practice with a short afternoon session on Sunday.  While Saturday’s practice was praised, it was clear by the number of players staying after the Sunday session that the energy was lacking.

Still, a lot was learned in the few minutes of offense the media was allowed to watch each day.  Everyone knows the biggest question on offense is who, if anyone, can emerge to take some pressure off of Chris Coyle and give Taylor Kelly more targets.  And we won’t beat the Jaelen Strong horse anymore.  The junior college transfer has looked great this week and is going to start, period.

The two biggest surprises, however, should have Sun Devil fans excited for what Week 1 will bring.  Freshman receiver Ellis Jefferson ran with the first team on Saturday, taking Kevin Ozier’s spot in the lineup, while transfer De’Marieya Nelson, a 3-back who dominated at Camp T, has forced the Sun Devils to get more creative with their two-tight end sets.

Nelson is going to play early and often this year.  He is everything that Chris Coyle isn’t: fast, athletic, intimidating.  Nelson looks the part of a big-play threat.  Coyle shouldn’t be as good as he was last year.  He’s a smart, savvy route runner with great hands and toughness that can’t be taught.  But Coyle isn’t going to open the field up.  Nelson, on the other hand, will do just that, and the possibilities with the two of them on the field together are endless.

“He’s got tremendous athletic ability,” offensive coordinator Mike Norvell said when asked about Nelson.  “To have the flexibility with him and Chris (Coyle) gives us great options.  They can line up with their hand in the grass, they can line up in the slot, and it really adds a new dimension to this offense.”

For what it’s worth, Nelson says he doesn’t have a preference when it comes to the two-tight sets.

“I’m comfortable with whatever makes the team better,” Nelson said.  “I don’t really have a stronger or weaker set of skills, I just need to try and put the same effort in on every play.”

Still, watching the formation work in practice on Sunday, it’s clear that Nelson’s speed will be relied upon to open up space underneath for Coyle, and when opponents focus in too much on one, the other will be left to make big plays.

Jefferson is perhaps the most intriguing prospect on the team.  A 6-foot-5 receiver with surprising bulk for a true freshman, Jefferson worked with the first team on Saturday before falling back behind Ozier on Sunday.  Ozier is still going to get the reps in key situations, but look for the Sun Devils to work Jefferson into the Sacramento State game early.

“He’s not quite there yet, it’s still early in his career,” Norvell said when asked about Jefferson starting in week one.  “But it shows the work he’s put in that he’s practicing with the first team.  He’s a guy that I love his mindset, his physicality, and when he gets an opportunity to make plays, he’s making them.  I can’t wait to see him grow (as a player).”

Translation: we want to get Ellis Jefferson the ball in a game situation and see if he still makes those plays.

The thing that impressed me the most was Jefferson’s personality.  He’s well spoken, smart and humble, three things that are rare in a freshman that has worked his way into the rotation before his first game.

“Coach is evaluating me right now, so I’m just patiently waiting to see what string I’m going to be,” Jefferson said.  “I just need to study the defense more than the playbook, to know what the defense is running.  I played outside in high school, so I’ve never had to work past linebackers before.”

The good news for Jefferson is he credits his ability to separate and make tough catches as his best asset right now, and that’s something Sun Devil fans and coaches are impatiently waiting to see from a receiver.

If you’re looking for two players who could steal the show against Sacramento State, a la Marion Grice against NAU in 2012, look for De’Marieya Nelson and Ellis Jefferson.

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