After an early-August practice, Dennis Erickson was providing reporters with an injury update on his Arizona State football team when an ailing wide receiver was brought up.
“If I’m a receiver on this team now,” Erickson said, “I don’t want to be injured for long. Out of sight, out of mind, you know what I mean?”
The coach was referring to the talent he feels the unit has, as there has been intense competition among eight receivers for playing time.
However, Erickson knows how important the success of the passing game is to his squad’s fortunes this season, which begins today with a contest against San Jose State at Sun Devil Stadium. And he is aware of how mightily the wideouts struggled in 2006.
As a result, his after-practice warning is still in effect: If you cannot help raise the unit’s level of play — for whatever reason — I’ll find someone who will. Erickson said, for the most part, his advice has been heeded.
“The competition helped make those receivers get better all the time in practice, and that was most pleasing to me,” Erickson said. “They caught the ball consistently. We’ve made changes in the passing game that are different from what they had before, and they adjusted well.
“We’ll find out (today).”
The starters — Michael Jones (split end), Chris McGaha (flanker) and Kyle Williams (slot) — and Kerry Taylor, a highly-regarded true freshman who will get a lot of playing time at all three positions, get the first opportunity to elevate the receiving corps out of its 2006 doldrums.
A glaring statistic: Last season, eight ASU wideouts combined for 1,475 yards in receptions, and Jones “led” with 318. That total slightly exceeds the typical season outputs that Shaun McDonald (2001-02) and Derek Hagan (2003-05) produced all by themselves.
For a program that prided itself on passing prodigiously — and boasts a rich legacy of wide receivers — the woes amounted to an ASU being stripped of its identity. What happened?
“There was a lot of inexperience,” Jones said. “We had freshmen and other newcomers jumping into positions that they didn’t play before. That’s why we struggled. …
“We don’t want to make the same mistakes. We know we are talented, and we can help the team win some games if we play together.”
Veterans Rudy Burgess (injury, move to defense), Jamaal Lewis (suspensions) and Terry Richardson (injuries, suspension) did not contribute much. The unit was forced to rely on such freshmen as McGaha, Williams and Brandon Smith and sophomores Jones and Nate Kimbrough.
The timing with quarterback Rudy Carpenter was poor. Young receivers spoke of the college game moving too fast for them. Then-coach Dirk Koetter weighed relieving the receivers of blocking and read-and-route-adjust responsibilities, but opted not to because it would have affected the rest of the offense.
There was too much thinking, said Williams, who had his redshirt removed in October.
“We need to be faster,” Williams said. “When you don’t know the system so well that it is second nature, you don’t play as fast. We need to get it down pat, so that it’s all instinct and reaction, no thinking.
“When you’re a freshman, you run to the line thinking about getting it all right, and you don’t go as fast as you can. We can’t be a freshman twice. If you run a 4.3 (40-yard dash) on the field, you can’t make it a 4.9 because you’re thinking.”
Kimbrough, who is almost fully back from a knee injury suffered at Oregon State in November, said that Erickson’s playbook has the same workload for the receivers as Koetter’s did.
“It’s not easier, but it’s based on being fast and not thinking as much,” Kimbrough said.
“We want to be consistent — all of us — to a point that Rudy can feel good about throwing to either side of the field. I feel we have a better confidence in ourselves to do the job.”
Kimbrough, Smith, Burgess and Jeff Gray should also contribute this year.
The passing game has performed well in most camp practices, but scrimmages have been another story. Carpenter was 2 of 10 in a scrimmage last week. Still, the quarterback feels that the timing with the receivers is improving.
“We’re throwing different routes than last year,” Carpenter said. “We have new combinations of stuff, and I didn’t throw much three-step (drop) before. It’s hard to do; it’s timing stuff. We’re trying to get that down, but it’s better.”
Running back Ryan Torain is going to get his yards behind a veteran line. With last year’s quarterback controversy behind him, Carpenter figures to be fit and focused.
For the Sun Devils’ offense to again reach elite heights, the receivers hold the key.
“Our (receivers) should be successful,” Erickson said. “But we have to do all of the right things.”
San Jose State at Arizona State
When: 7 p.m. today
Where: Sun Devil Stadium
Radio: KTAR (92.3 FM) and ESPN (860 AM)
2006 records: San Jose State 9-4, ASU 7-6
Rankings: Neither team ranked