August 28, 2008

Season Preview: WR

At this point, it's doubtful the expectations for Arizona State's 2008 wide receiver corps and the reality of what the group is capable of can be reconciled. We've heard it time and again from fans and even some of the players: Best group of receivers in the country?

The reality is, fans shouldn't set themselves up for that level of expectation from these players.

ASU's receivers are very good, perhaps even the best in the Pac-10. They are not, however, that good. This isn't going to be like Oregon State's Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh, running wild all over the field on another Dennis Erickson-led team in a blowout of a top-10 Notre Dame team in the 2001 Fiesta Bowl.

Senior Mike Jones and junior Chris McGaha are very impressive receivers, certainly. They formulate the best duo of returning players at the position in the Pac-10, production-wise, and if healthy they'll do very well in the year ahead.

They are not likely to be NFL superstars. But they are capable of being star players at this level.

Jones, a lanky 6-4 senior from Sugar Land, Texas, is coming off a 2007 campaign in which he started all 13 games at split end and was second on the team with 46 catches and 769 receiving yards. Most impressively, he finished second in the Pac-10 with 16.7 yards per catch and ten receiving touchdowns. He's a big play target who shows well in game situations, but doesn't have elite speed and isn't a world-class route runner.

The 6-1 McGaha, meanwhile, was arguably the most improved player on the offense last season as a sophomore, when he hauled in a team-best 61 catches for 830 yards from his flanker position. Though he had just one touchdown catch, nearly 80 percent of McGaha's receptions were first downs, and he is among the top five returning pass catchers in the Pac-10. We think he's the best NFL prospect among the receivers on the roster.

From a production standpoint, there is a drop off after Jones and McGaha, but that's not surprising considering how prominent those two were in the ASU offense.

Local products Kyle Williams and Kerry Taylor are the team's No. 3 and No. 4 receivers. Both are capable of playing multiple receiver positions. Williams, in particular, is best suited for the slot, and that's where he'll spend most of his time. Taylor is perhaps the most versatile receiver on the roster.

Williams, 5-10, 185 pounds started three games last season, hauling in 29 catches for 360 yards and six touchdowns, second most on the squad behind Jones. He's extremely shifty with great lateral mobility and tremendous burst in the open field. It's part of what helps made Williams the top punt return specialist in the league last year. We view Williams as a legitimate NFL prospect and someone who could see his production take a big jump in 2008 as a junior.

Taylor, 6-0, 187 pounds, has a very good combination of size and athleticism, and he's extremely polished as a route runner, with quick, active feet and good change of direction. His work ethic and approach to the position are remarkable and he had one of the best camp showings of any player on the team. Like Williams, Taylor has a chance to play at the next level.

After the top four receivers there is a bit more uncertainty, with a number of players likely to get game snaps early in the season.

Senior Nate Kimbrough has looked good in recent practices and he'll be battling red shirt freshman T.J. Simpson and true freshman Gerell Robinson for playing time.

Kimbrough, 6-1, 208 pounds, was arguably the team's top receiver through nine games of the 2006 season before suffering a torn knee ligament. He hasn't earned a major role since then.

Simpson, 6-0, 186 pounds, has ample speed and length, but he's now improved as a route runner and pass catcher. He has a strong camp and will get a chance to show what he can do on Saturdays.

Robinson, 6-4, 222 pounds, is a big-bodied potential red zone and possession receiver target who is learning the nuances of the position, and appears to have an extremely bright future. How quickly he develops remains to be seen. He has the potential to eventually be a big play threat, though that probably won't be his role on this team. Certainly, he has some excellent players ahead of him to learn from, and as much physical potential as a guy like Jones.

Brandon Smith, 6-2, 197 pounds, is a terrific, if fragile, receiving prospect. But the junior has spent more time on the shelf in the last year due to an assortment of injuries than he has on the field, so it's difficult to have any real expectations.

Camp Grade: B Jones was sidelined with a concussion and McGaha missed much of two weeks recovering from toe inflammation. It made it tough to see where both players were at heading into the season, but gave others a chance to step up. Williams and Taylor were excellent at times, and not as impressive other times. Simpson had a good camp. Robinson started out strong and tapered off a bit. We know it's a very good group. How good? That will be determined in the coming months.


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