Ellis Jefferson poised for breakout year for ASU

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Jefferson makes a play against USC (Victor Decolongon / Getty Images Sport) Jefferson makes a play against USC (Victor Decolongon / Getty Images Sport)
TEMPE, AZ (3TV/CBS 5) - No Jaelen. No Cam. No problem?

Well, not exactly. Yet, while Arizona State's wide receiver position has taken some hits this offseason, there remains a great deal of confidence in the group.

On the surface, finding optimism is a tough task. Jaelen Strong, the Sun Devils' leading receiver over the past two years, is now a Houston Texan, and Cam Smith, last year's No. 2 receiver, is out for the season following knee surgery. The team's top returning pass catcher is D.J. Foster, a running back for his first three seasons who is now moving to wide receiver for 2015. All told, returning wide receivers accounted for just 37 receptions a year ago.

Eleven of those catches came from redshirt sophomore Ellis Jefferson, who appeared in all 13 games. A year after a groin injury derailed his true freshman season, Jefferson earned a role in the team's wide receiver rotation last fall. While he struggled adjusting to the irregular playing time, Jefferson was able to take away great value from the experience.

"It meant a lot," Jefferson said of his 2014 playing time. "I wish I could go back. I don't think I had a really good year last year. It was hard for me to go in and go right in to it. I feel way more comfortable this year. I feel way more confident. I'm ready."

The 6-foot-4, 211-pound Jefferson has always offered a big-bodied target for his quarterbacks, but he has made great strides in improving his explosiveness and speed downfield. 

"Coming into spring ball, I wanted my release to be better," Jefferson said. "(Wide receivers) Coach (DelVaughn) Alexander told me to work on it, and I did. My acceleration and my yards after the catch, I think I've gotten better at that. I'm not happy where I am, but I know that I've improved."

The results during spring practices were encouraging. Not only did Jefferson make the jump ball plays he's become known for, he also often outran defenders on deep routes. Most encouragingly, he was also able to use that improved explosiveness to turn short routes upfield for big gains. He credits those plays with his effort in weight room.

"Coach Griz (strength coach Shawn Griswold) got me right with bench press, squat, and power clean," said Jefferson. "I'm happy to have that coaching. With that, everything else has rolled right behind it. With me, it's yards after the catch. Catching the ball and taking it for sixty."

Jefferson spent last season backing up Strong at the team's X wide receiver position, and he battled Foster there this spring. He also has been working on learning the other positions—the Y and Z—allowing the team greater flexibility with their personnel packages.

"From the film room. I've watched way more film, and I feel way more confident in the offense," Jefferson said. "I'm able to play every position. Coach Alexander gave me the opportunity with playing those positions, and I took advantage of it."

Both Jefferson and Foster were among the offense's standouts, repeatedly making plays on the receiving end of passes from new starting quarterback Mike Bercovici. The trio of players also happen to be roommates, and their on-field rapport during spring was clearly evident.

"Me, Berco, D.J., we all watch film together," Jefferson said. "We pull it up on the TV. We'll see what we can fix, what he sees at quarterback, and what we can tweak. We go over plays all the time, learning new installs at the dinner table. That's enhanced my and D.J.'s game."

In particular, Bercovici's ascension to the starting quarterback job bodes well for Jefferson's chances at a breakout year. During his playing time last year, Bercovici showed off his powerful arm, willingness to press the ball downfield, and perhaps most importantly, his ability to spread the ball around. Last year, 10 of Jefferson's 11 receptions came from Bercovici, despite the quarterback only making three of the 13 starts.

"He throws to every receiver," Jefferson said of Bercovici. "Not to bash on Taylor Kelly, but a lot of receivers didn't get the ball much. But with Berco, he throws to every single receiver. Everyone gets to touch the ball. He doesn't start down at one receiver, he looks at all the receivers."

Foster and Jefferson figure to be among the team's top targets, but behind them, there is a talented, but unproven, group of players looking to make their mark.

Frederick Gammage and Gary Chambers each saw action last season, and Eric Lauderdale, Jalen Harvey, and Tyler Whiley return after redshirting in 2014. ASU looked to initially strike out at the position in the 2015 recruiting class, but were able to snag prep star Terrell Chatman and junior college speedster Tim White after National Signing Day. They also are bolstered by the transfer of former UCLA Bruin Devin Lucien, who is eligible this fall.

While many doubts and concerns remain surrounding the ASU wide receivers, Jefferson remains confident that the group can become a team strength.

"I think we've come along really well," said Jefferson. "I think we have the opportunity to rotate a big group of people and not be what it was last year with three people going in."

The Sun Devil ground game, led by Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage, figures to be potent. If Jefferson is able to take the next step and establish a reliable combo with Bercovici, it could be the final piece in a the Sun Devils' offensive puzzle.

In fact, Jefferson is already seeing great things ahead for the ASU offense in 2015.

"There's no stopping us. I'm already watching film on opponents, and I don't see anyone that can stop us."