TEMPE, Ariz. -- The opportunity was there, and he took it.
The 2013 Sun Devils had a dire need at the wide receiver position, and they wasted little time in throwing their five newcomers at the spot into the fire. Knowing the situation that lay before him, Ellis Jefferson went to work acclimating himself to the speed of the collegiate game after a standout prep career in Texas.
With every leaping grab or tough catch in traffic in fall camp, Jefferson worked his way up the depth chart.
“Coming in, the coaches told me that I had a big opportunity to be a big part of the team as a freshman," Jefferson said. "I was really excited. I knew that I needed to prepare myself because I knew that college was faster than high school football. When I got here and I started working out, I adjusted myself. I think that I adjusted really well.”
At one point during camp, Jefferson even earned first-team reps over senior Kevin Ozier. The path to playing time as a true freshman was clear.
Then came the injury.
“It wasn’t that bad of a feeling," said Jefferson of the injury. "I knew that I had the opportunity to start, and they gave me those opportunities and I was starting during camp. But then I had a groin injury and that’s what stopped me."
That injury sidelined Jefferson for the rest of camp. Other players at the position stepped up to contribute, and ultimately Jefferson took a redshirt. Rather than being disappointed, Jefferson feels that it will aid his career.
"Now that I redshirted, I’m honestly happy," Jefferson. "Now I can get bigger, stronger, and faster and still be considered a freshman.”
ASU's outlook at receiver is now a lot better than it was a year ago, and Jefferson now projects to play a role.
Jaelen Strong returns as one of the premier playmakers in the entire Pac-12, but the depth chart after him is up in the air.
In addition to returning veterans Cameron Smith and Rick Smith, the program brought in three heralded prospects in the 2014 recruiting class, two of whom (Tyler Whiley and Eric Lauderdale) have consensus 4-star ratings are are expected to contribute this fall.
At 6-foot-4, Jefferson has the big frame and sure hands that have him well suited for the Y, or slot, receiver role that Ozier played last season. However, after a year in the team's strength and conditioning program, Jefferson now feels his improved speed make him a fit anywhere.
“I think I fit perfectly," Jefferson said of ASU's offensive scheme. "With what I do, I can run short routes and go for 50, or I can go deep on a post and still catch the ball. I can play the inside slot, which I’m playing now, or I can play the outside spot. I fit the offense very well.”
This year, Strong will command the defense's primary attention, which could lead a driven player like Jefferson to have a big impact as ASU looks to repeat as Pac-12 South champions.
What were the biggest challenges you faced in 2013?: “On the field, it was doing every little thing right, like running a 10-yard in instead of an eight-yard in, making the right the right choices when I do my reads of the linebackers and safeties. The coaches are more strict here, and that’s what I like, because they need to be strict to make me better. Out of school, it’s time management. I’m on my own now, my parents are not there to wake me up in the morning and make sure my homework is done. It’s all on me. I’m doing a good job now of handling that.”
What have you learned from the veteran receivers?: “Jaelen (Strong) always told me that when things go bad, just keep grinding. He’s taught me a lot of things like how to get off the ball during press, and how to run better routes. He also showed me different ways to run routes. Kevin (Ozier) also helped me out. I took his position at one point, and with him being a senior he still helped me out. I really respected that. He taught me how to shake the linebackers. That have helped me out a lot. All the receivers help each other out with the stuff that we know and the knowledge that we learned.”
How has the coaching staff helped you grow? “It’s all about trust. That’s the biggest thing that sticks out. I believe that our coaches know what they’re talking about. I don’t want to say I didn’t want to listen to them, but some part of me is saying ‘Maybe I should do my own thing.’ At the end of the day, I need to listen to them and they know what they are talking about. When I do use the skills that they do, I progress and I get better.”
Where have you improved the most since last year?: “I think I’ve gotten faster. With my yards-after-catch, I think I’ve gotten better with that, and I can’t wait to show that on the field.”
What is the focus of offseason work heading into spring?: “I want to accelerate faster off the ball, and I need to work on my release. Just getting bigger in the weight room. I want to weight 215 by next season.”
What are your goals for this year?: “I want to be a starter. I want to have 1,000 yards. Those are my goals right now.”
What should fans expect from you in 2014?: “It should be exciting. There should be a lot of explosive plays coming their way. I hope everyone can come out to the games and be ready for the big plays.”