SAN DIEGO - Go through Arizona State’s schedule this year, quarterback Rudy Carpenter said, and one can find a tremendous catch by a wide receiver in almost every game.
There was Kyle Williams’ backhanded touchdown catch against Colorado. Chris McGaha’s deft route adjustment and drive-extending, diving grab against Oregon State. Williams coming back to the ball and reaching high for a one-handed catch at Washington State.
Michael Jones’ improvisation to aid a scrambling Carpenter, which resulted in a touchdown at Oregon. McGaha with his over-the-head, back-of-the-ball reception and Tyrice Thompson with his parallel-to-the-ground grab against Arizona.
“One of the things that (the receivers) have stressed to themselves is that there are times that they are not going to get a perfect pass and catch the ball in stride,” Carpenter said. “There are times that you have to make a play, too, and those guys have done it all season.”
It is the golden rule for the Sun Devil wideouts: Catch all of the passes that you are supposed to, and half of those that you are not. Adhering to that rule has helped the unit evolve from a confused, confidence-shaken group last season to one of the strengths of the ASU squad in 2007.
McGaha at flanker, Jones at split end and either Williams or Rudy Burgess at slot receiver have been reliable starters. Thompson came on late in the season. True freshman Kerry Taylor has had his moments, but the success of the unit means that there has been no need to rush him.
And the receivers’ improvement — they have more than doubled their combined receptions over last year, for 1,111 more yards and six more touchdowns — is a big reason why the Sun Devils are ranked 12th in the nation as they prepare to face No. 17 Texas in the Holiday Bowl on Thursday.
“We answered our critics,” Williams said. “We had people saying that we would be the weakness of the team, and I think we came out and showed that we can be a big strength on the team. Everybody is producing.”
The Sun Devils’ receiving talent was dormant in 2006.
The group was young, and expected veteran leadership by then-seniors Terry Richardson and Jamaal Lewis never developed, thanks to injuries and disciplinary reasons. Another veteran, Burgess, moved to cornerback, then missed games with a high ankle sprain.
Jones, then a sophomore, and McGaha and Williams, then freshmen, never got into rhythm with Carpenter. As ASU’s offense continued to struggle, pressure to make the right fixes only made matters worse.
“We were not on the same page with Rudy,” McGaha said. “I did way too much thinking last year, not enough playing football. That’s where (receivers) coach (Eric) Yarber has been a big help.
“He challenged us to play, not think. We can just use our God-given talent, and that will lead to success. This year, we came out and clicked.”
After Yarber arrived as part of coach Dennis Erickson’s staff and convened his receivers for the first time in the spring, he discovered young men who were football fragile. Yarber’s assignment was clear — what was a team liability will become an asset.
“We challenged them to be complete receivers,” Yarber said. “I wanted them to be known for being playmakers. I wanted them to play with effort, and that’s the big thing they’ve done this season. They played for each other and the team and didn’t care who got the credit. They exceeded my expectations.”
Developing a synergy with Carpenter was most vital, and that task began in earnest over the summer, with extended workouts and meetings with the receivers and quarterback.
The results have shown on the field. Receivers improvise, make adjustments, cut off routes and come back to the ball. That did not happen much last season, when Carpenter often felt that he and tight end Zach Miller — now a starter with the NFL’s Oakland Raiders — were the entire passing offense.
“We talk about coming back to the ball and being aggressive,” Jones said. “Our mind-set is that we are catching the ball, or nobody is, and we take that on the field with us.”
The highest-profile failure for the ASU receivers this season is McGaha’s inability to catch a touchdown pass, despite his team-high totals in receptions and yardage.
As a result, McGaha is subjected to daily barbs by his fellow wideouts, but it is all in good fun.
And fun is something the Sun Devil receivers have caught a lot of in 2007.
“Last year, we had a lot of individualism, a lot of guys pointing fingers,” Williams said. “We don’t have that this season.”