TEMPE, Ariz. -- Find someone who didn't see a single second of Arizona State football a year ago and have them look at the stat book. More than likely, they would think that the Sun Devils had a formidable passing offense, and they may very well infer that the team's pass catchers played a large role in that success.
But reality would answer: Yes to the former, no to the latter...well, except for one guy.
Tight end Chris Coyle exploded in the first year of offensive coordinator Mike Norvell's system, leveraging his role as the team's 3-back into a place in the record books. Coyle's 57 catches were the most any ASU tight end has ever had in a single season.
After that, the picture at wide receiver and tight end was bleak, so the coaching staff took drastic action over the offseason.
This season, seven new faces populate the two positions, and most are expected to see the field this fall, as the Sun Devils look to upgrade a passing game built around budding star quarterback Taylor Kelly.
Let's preview the positions by examining six key areas.
1) Nowhere to go but up
Ask an ASU fan to sum up the team's wide receiver play in 2012 in one word.
Their answer likely will be R-rated.
To be kind, the play of the group was consistently below average throughout the year, and this year's returning wide receivers only accounted for less than 17 percent of last year's receptions. Yikes.
It was no surprise then when the team brought in a large group of newcomers to complement key returners Kevin Ozier, Rick Smith, and Alonzo Agwuenu.
But what this year's group lacks in overall experience, it makes up for in talent. The Sun Devils now boast a great mix of speedy deep threats, big-bodied targets, sure-handed possession receivers—and a few guys who can potentially do it all. This is arguably the most talent-laden group Tempe has seen in many years.
As has been proven countless times in the college game, it's most often better to be talented than experienced. ASU is hoping to add yet another entry into that long list.
2) Can Strong be a true No. 1?
"He's the most dynamic receiver I've seen in a long time."
No newcomer has generated more buzz than junior college transfer Jaelen Strong, and the above evaluation from head coach Todd Graham says it all.
The redshirt sophomore comes to Tempe after a highly productive stint at Pierce College, and already has made a major impact during fall camp, including a dominant stretch at Camp Tontozona.
Strong has all of the tools to be a true No. 1 wide receiver. He has the size at 6-foot-4, 205 pounds to present match-up problems for defenders, and adds the gamebreaking speed and agility to beat defenders deep while making plays after the catch.
Beyond the tools is the opportunity he now has. This team needs a threat on the outside that defense must gameplan to stop, and if he can live up to his potential, he can help elevate the ASU passing game into a "pick your poison" affair with Coyle along the seams and the running back duo of Marion Grice and D.J. Foster underneath.
3) Run fast, go deep
Other than the bowl game, in which Rashad Ross beat an undermanned Navy secondary for a pair of 50-yard touchdowns, the wide receivers were unable to do much damage downfield.
In addition to Strong, some other Devils figure to change that in 2013.
Most intriguing is a Texas speedster.
"He's a big time deep threat, a guy who can stress the field vertically, a guy who is a dynamic wide receiver, so we're excited about Cameron," Graham said about freshman Cameron Smith.
Smith, who has been hobbled through most of camp due to injury, has electric speed and was a terror on deep routes during his senior year at Coppell High in Texas. He showed off his wheels during the first week of camp before his injury, even burning some of ASU's experienced secondary players in the process.
While he won't run many deep patterns, fellow freshman Ronald Lewis is an explosive playmaker who will line up in a variety of positions and be used in a number of ways to get his speed and agility into the open field.
A pair of ASU veterans will also look to strike downfield.
One of the bright spots among the returning wide receivers is sophomore Rick Smith. Praised by Graham as one of the most improved players, Smith is likely to open the year as a starter on the outside along with Strong, after playing in the slot a year ago. Smith is a dynamic speedster, and has shown great hands and much improved route running throughout camp.
Alonzo Agwuenu looks to shake off a underwhelming junior year to finish his Sun Devil career strong. He has the size (6-foot-4) and enough speed to get downfield and get the ball, and had a strong showing in the team's scrimmage at Camp Tontozona.
4) Posting Up
While many expected Strong and Smith to quickly contribute to the team, another member of the recruiting class has emerged as one of the biggest, and most pleasant, surprises.
Freshman Ellis Jefferson started fall camp strong and has remained impressive throughout. Once thought destined for a redshirt, Jefferson is now battling for the starting job at the slot receiver spot. Showing off sure hands and great body control, the 6-foot-4 Jefferson has repeatedly drawn comparisons to former ASU standout Gerell Robinson, and will see significant action this year.
Along with Jefferson, juco transfer Joe Morris brings a big body to the lineup.
Called by Graham as "one of the most physical wide receivers in the country", Morris has been slowed by injury, but figures to see reps when healthy thanks to his physicality and 6-foot-4 frame. Morris was a junior college teammate of Strong at Pierce College.
5) Record breaking encore?
A year ago, Coyle was a converted wide receiver taking on a brand new position. Now, he is No. 1 on a list that includes legends like Todd Heap and Zach Miller.
So what can he do for an encore?
Like many of the team's top stars, Coyle is benefiting from a year in the program's strength and conditioning program, and is now in prime condition. He's up 10 pounds from last year's weight (to 240) with even better quickness than before.
Despite this, it is possible (if not probable) that his numbers may dip due to increased defensive attention and more competent weapons on offense. Yet, he may ultimately be a more effective player for ASU, and in the end, that is most important.
6) Wild Stallion
As Coyle proved last season, the 3-back position can be a lethal threat in the hands of the right player. How about in the hands of two such players?
De'Marieya Nelson came to ASU from San Joaquin Junior College, and has the tools to make an immediate impact. He has a terrific frame, standing 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds, but also has good quickness, and is an effective and powerful runner. In fact, he led San Joaquin in rushing a year ago.
An effective receiver, Nelson has been lined up out wide, in the backfield, in the slot, and on the line, and that versatility should pay immediate dividends for the Sun Devils.
"De'Marieya is tailor made for our three back position," said Graham. "This guy can play running back. He also can play a tight end, and he can also play an inside receiver. He is one of the best chasing tight ends in the country and a guy that is going to be very impactful with what we are doing."
After Nelson hauled in a pair of touchdowns in the Camp Tontozona scrimmage earlier this month, Graham said that Nelson "is going to be a stud, no doubt about it."
While defenses are keying on Coyle and the backs, Nelson has the potential to be a major X-factor for the Sun Devil offense this fall.