TEMPE, Ariz. -- There's no debate that No. 21 is No. 1 for the Sun Devil passing game. After that, it gets murky, but don't confuse that unknown for pessimism.
Last season, Jaelen Strong was sensational in his debut season for Arizona State, catching 75 passes for 1,122 yards and seven touchdowns. While he is the Pac-12's top returning receiver in 2014, you'll have to go down a ways on the stat sheet before finding another impact player. ASU's returning wide receivers combined for just 14 catches last year.
Despite the experience gap between Strong and the rest, ASU feels very confident in their options. This is in large part due to the potential of a trio of newcomers: junior college transfer Eric Lauderdale and true freshmen Jalen Harvey and Tyler Whiley.
"We hit on all three guys," said ASU wide receivers coach DelVaughn Alexander. "We feel great about the position."
For these newcomers, the first few days of fall camp have been positive as they adjust to the speed of the college game.
"It's been fast and productive," Harvey said of fall camp. "Coach is still getting on us, trying to get away from the mental mistakes, but we just have to push through."
“It’s definitely a learning experience," said Whiley. "It’s a lot different than high school. I think we’ve done a good job as young guys.”
Some freshman arrive at their new school knowing that they will have time to adjust and develop. These three do not. Each is expected to contribute this fall, and the coaches aren't holding back.
“All three of these guys have an opportunity. It is open competition right now," Alexander said. "These guys look like veterans, but there is only one established veteran, and that’s Jaelen Strong.
"Right now, we’re trying to get these guys to compete. We’re trying to do everything at that national championship level. That’s the first thing they have to understand and execute every single day.”
Of the trio, Lauderdale comes to ASU with arguably the highest expectations, at least in the near term. Like Strong, Lauderdale arrived in Tempe as a four-star junior college transfer. The obvious comparisons were quickly drawn, much to Lauderdale's dismay.
“I’m not saying that I don’t want any pressure, but I don’t really like it when people compare," Lauderdale admitted.
Nevertheless, Lauderdale's talents have the program thinking juco lightning can strike twice.
“He does it all. He’s fast. He’s got hands, he can catch the ball," Alexander said. "He understands releases at the line of scrimmage. He’s a good player.”
"I think I’ll do well, because I’m really athletic and really humble, and I love the game of football," the 6-foot-2, 195-pound Lauderdale said. “I’m an athlete on the field. Screen routes, deep routes, reverses, I can do it all.”
Lauderdale's path to ASU was difficult. His father was killed when Lauderdale was still a baby, and his mother passed away from colon cancer while he was in his teens. That turmoil led to struggles in high school, forcing Lauderdale to take the junior college route. He says the experience helped mature him, and he keeps close the memory of his parents.
“I deal with it every day," said Lauderdale of his past. "Coach Graham had us put up pictures in our locker of who motivates you, so I have my sister, my grandma, my mom, and my dad. I look at it every night before practice."
Lauderdale is now aiming to go beyond his newcomer status and become a central figure on this Sun Devil squad.
“I want to be a leader on this team," said Lauderdale. "It will take some time and work and making a lot of plays, but I want to step up to that plate.”
That includes being in the starting lineup when the Sun Devils open up the season on Aug. 28 against Weber State.
“I think I will be able to earn a starting spot. If I stick to my playbook, I’ll be fine," he said. "I’m athletic enough to start right now.”
Like Lauderdale, Harvey wasn't originally slated to be a Sun Devil.
He was initially committed to Cal, but after, as he says, "some difficulties", he gave ASU another look, along with another of his highly-coveted prep teammates.
"ASU was still showing me love, and I couldn’t push them away, so I showed love back," Harvey said. "When I came here on my official with my teammate D.J. Calhoun, I just experienced that Coach Graham wasn’t telling any lies. He was telling the truth."
Shortly after his official visit last October, Harvey made a verbal commitment to ASU, and six days later, so did Calhoun, a consensus four-star linebacker.
The 6-foot-2, 185 pounder is bringing a toughness and mean streak to the Sun Devil wide receivers.
“He’s aggressive. He’s physical. He’s got a nasty attitude, and he loves to play football," said Alexander of Harvey. "When we look downfield and look for long runs with our great group of backs, there are going to be receivers there escorting them downfield. We’re going to be a lot more explosive than we were a year ago, which is tough to do, and one of those reasons is the perimeter blocking and perimeter effort."
Beyond just getting a four-star recruit and explosive prep playmaker in Whiley, ASU also continued their recent success of keeping the top Arizona prep talent in-state when he elected to become a Sun Devil. Whiley (6-foot, 193 pounds) played his high school ball at Scottsdale Chaparral.
“Recruiting-wise, you can see that we’ve already made ground in terms of recruiting the Valley," said Alexander. "That’s what we want to continue to do."
“It was a huge role in the recruiting process," Whiley said of the chance of being a hometown hero. "I want to play in front of my family and friends, because they have been with me since day one. I want to continue my career in front of them."
Now wearing the maroon and gold, Whiley has been impressive thus far in camp.
“Tyler is everything we thought he was," said Alexander. "He is a playmaker, and we’ve seen him do a lot of things in his 7-on-7 stuff here on campus. He adds to the depth of the group. He’s been a pleasant surprise because he doesn’t say anything, but boy, is he explosive, and he has a high football IQ.”
"I bring speed to it, good hands, I can block for the guys on the outside. That’s what my role is right now," Whiley said.
While they will be beginning their careers as wide receivers, Whiley and Harvey also have the ability to play defensive back.
“We talked about it a little bit," Whiley said. "Coach Graham said I could possibly be a third down nickel. We’ll wait and see how that goes.”
His coach does, however.
“We have a lot of guys than can go on the other side of the ball," Alexander said. "We have guys that are capable of doing a number of things. Right now, he’s a wide receiver and I’m not giving him up.”
The adjustment to both college football and college life is a daunting one for any newcomer, but it's a journey that none of the three, nor any fellow Sun Devil, is making alone.
"The brotherhood this team has, Coach Graham has been preaching that," Whiley said. "We’re a good team, but we’re going to come together and be a great team.”
"These guys come in and are a part of the Sun Devil brotherhood," said Alexander. "We are stressing that, and they are living that. If those guys are down, they have a brother to pick them up. That’s important about what we’re doing. This is not about D.J. Foster and Jaelen Strong. This is about the team and the brotherhood, and they are living that every single day.”
The presence of Strong has been significant part of that bonding.
“He’s a big mentor. I can’t go a day without talking to him, to pick his brain apart,” Harvey said.
“He brings a lot of support," Whiley said. "He helps us a lot and puts us under his wing, trying to get us better and to his level.”
For Lauderdale, that support extends all the way to his new address.
“That’s my roommate," Lauderdale said of Strong. "We work together a lot. He’s on me to get on my playbook, because things are going to go fast."
On the field, with so many passes to be caught in ASU's high-octane offense, all three players have eyes on being a contributor in 2014.
“It’s a fast-paced offense, everyone gets in and out," said Whiley. “Watching it last year, I was really excited. I wanted to get in so bad. Everyone touches the ball. Everyone is helping out each other making blocks. It’s an up-paced offense and I like being a part of it."
“The scheme is fast. Fast tempo," Harvey said. "You can’t get off track, because if you do, you head to the sideline."
“My skills will fit well in this system," Lauderdale said. "Jaelen Strong came in last year and had 1,100 yards. It’s just seeing what you can do with the ball. This season, I want to get on first team All-Pac-12. I want to be one of the leaders and get to a national championship."
Their position coach sees big things ahead for this talented trio. It's just a matter of when.
“The only thing they are waiting on is time," Alexander said. "They are waiting to experience all the other things the other guys have. Everything right now is a first for them. Every day is a new day for them. Give them a week or two, we’ll see how they are, and exactly how comfortable they are.
"Talent-wise, they are as good as the rest.”