August 1, 2008

Camp Preview: WR/TE

Benefiting from a balanced offensive attack, Arizona State finished third in the Pac-10 in passing offense last season, averaging 262.6 yards per game via the air.

With 549 rushing attempts on the season, second only to Oregon, the Sun Devils frequently set up downfield passing opportunities against single coverage and as a result led the conference with an impressive 144.6 pass efficiency rating and 8.0 yards per pass attempt.

Having big play receivers Mike Jones and Chris McGaha on the outside certainly didn't hurt, and both players return to the program in 2008.

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.

A two-sport player who was drafted by the New York Yankees in the 29th round of the 2008 Major League Baseball Draft, Jones missed spring football due to baseball obligations. He spent his summer playing for one of the club's minor league affiliates.

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.

The Phoenix, Ariz., native injured his toe a week before the spring game and needed to undergo surgery, but prior to that he was having an outstanding off-season. In late July, McGaha had resumed running and he was close to being cleared to play. He is expected to be back for most, if not all of camp.

While the team returns it's starting split end and flanker, it must replace slot receiver Rudy Burgess, a fan favorite who was one of just 14 players in Football Bowl Subdivision (Formerly Division I-A) to total more than 1,000 yards rushing, receiving and returning kicks in a career. Williams started five games last season and finished third with 34 catches and 467 yards.

Two local products, junior Kyle Williams and sophomore Kerry Taylor, were neck-and-neck in the battle for first-team slot receiver on the depth chart all spring and that figures to remain the case in summer camp.

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.

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. The coaching staff like his versatility, and Taylor could play all three receiver positions, but if he has a chance to start, it will be in the slot.

Beyond the top four receivers, returning scholarship players Nate Kimbrough and Brandon Smith will have an opportunity to lock down second-team spots on the depth chart at flanker and split end, respectively.

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. After catching five balls for 56 yards last season, Kimbrough has had an excellent off-season and he appears ready to spend more time on the field in what will be his senior season.

Smith, a 6-2, 213 pound junior, has developed a reputation for putting forth impressive spring showings only to fade or get injured in the fall. He's a fantastic athletic specimen with great length and speed, and the potential to become a Jones-like homerun threat and red zone target. But he is very inconsistent still, a mark that is beginning to define him. Last season what appeared to be a mild foot sprain in camp essentially turned into a season ending injury.

Redshirt freshman T.J. Simpson spent last season on the practice squad before showing well as an outside receiver in spring football. One of the top prep sprinters in Arizona coming out of Peoria High School, Simpson is another impressive athlete with nice size at 6-0, 188 pounds.

Walk-on transfer Tony Simmons, a 6-0, 185-pounder who prepped at Chandler High School and played one season at San Diego under then-coach Jim Harbaugh, was one of the top newcomers on the roster in the spring. Only a sophomore, Simmons has a chance to see the field at some point in the future.

ASU will fortify itself at the position with the addition of several highly regarded recruits, including the top ranked prospect in the state, 6-4 210-pounder Gerell Robinson.

While the team has a number of reliable weapons at the receiver position, tight end is another matter entirely as Brent Miller, Tyrice Thompson and Brady Conrad have exhausted eligibility, Lance Evbuomwan has transferred and anticipated starter Dane Guthrie will not return to the program.

The battle for playing time at the position will likely come down to Andrew Pettes, Dan Knapp, Jovon Williams, and late junior college signee Stanley Malamala, with the Sun Devils often using double tight end formations with one tight end essentially playing the role of an extra receiver.

Pettes and Williams combined for just two catches and 16 receiving yards with one touchdown last season.

Williams is a terrific athlete, who gained at least 15 pounds in recent months and is now reportedly 6-4 and approximately 250 pounds. After putting together an excellent off-season, he has a chance to fill the downfield pass catching role held by Thompson last season.

Pettes, Knapp and Malamala are more well-rounded tight ends who have the ability to be used more traditionally. Pettes had his best spring since joining the program, while Knapp has impressed in summer workouts.

What to watch in camp:

Smith and McGaha missed much of the spring and all of the team's informal summer workouts. Will either be rusty in camp?

Who will emerge as backup options on the edges at receiver?

There is a good battle underway between Williams and Taylor for the slot position that will be interesting to follow.

There is no real experience at the tight end position and the talent level is uncertain. ASU needs to get solid blocking and at least have a pass catching option but it's unclear who will fill those roles.

5. Is there enough talent at the tight end position to prevent the position from being a liability?

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