Last year, Chris McGaha’s receiving statistics at Arizona State were modest, in big part because the then-redshirt freshman was in awe of the major-college playing opportunity he once thought he would never have.
Now, McGaha is much more sure of his talent, sure of his surroundings, sure that he belongs. As he has become less modest, so has his production.
The 6-foot-1, 189-pounder has been one of the standouts of ASU’s receiving corps during the first two games of the season, with five receptions — second on the team and nearly a third of his total from all of 2006 — for 80 yards.
“I experienced a shock factor last season,” McGaha said. “This season, I’m looking to score touchdowns.”
He has not reached the end zone yet, but since the beginning of fall camp, McGaha has won heavy praise from the Sun Devil coaches, who nicknamed him, “Mr. Consistency.” Among a large contingent of receivers battling for playing time, he took the first-string flanker spot and never relinquished it.
“You talk about our receivers, and they’ve all been good,” coach Dennis Erickson said. “But if I had to pick the one who has been most reliable, I’d have to say Chris. That catch near the end of the first half (on Saturday), that was something else.”
In ASU’s victory against Colorado, the play of the game was receiver Kyle Williams’ backhand of a Rudy Carpenter pass amid a sea of Buffaloes defenders for a touchdown just before halftime, giving ASU the lead for good. That play would not have happened without a nearly-as-impressive catch by McGaha.
Two plays earlier, on fourth-and-6, McGaha made an alert route adjustment and dove to get his arms under Carpenter’s pass for a 16-yard gain.
“I was focused on getting my depth (past the first-down marker), so we would keep possession,” McGaha said. “I saw the ball and just went for it. To tell the truth, it didn’t feel all that hard, but then I saw it on film and went, ‘Yeah, that looked a little challenging.’ ”
For receivers coach Eric Yarber, the most impressive facet of the play was McGaha’s use of his head as well as his hands.
“The play called for him to take the inside release,” Yarber said. “The defender jumped inside, so for Chris to have the presence of mind to go around him and come back inside to make the catch, that was a big-time play.”
The play was especially gratifying for McGaha, as route precision was the part of his game that he wanted to improve most. Playing wide-eyed last season, McGaha sometimes hurried too much, cutting routes too short, which can disrupt an entire offense’s timing if the quarterback is not ready to throw.
He also developed a reputation as a good practice player who was unable to bring that level of play into games.
“My goal is to go out there and do what I do in practice,” McGaha said. “I knew I had to step it up this season. Over the summer, I felt I improved in the areas I needed to, and I was ready for fall camp.”
Yarber said that since the spring, McGaha has developed into a complete player, running precise routes and displaying sure hands. He also has decent speed, so much so that ASU utilizes him on kickoff returns.
“He has really gotten confident in himself,” Yarber said. “Chris pretty much said, ‘(Flanker) is my position and I’m going to keep it, so give me the ball and the opportunity.’ And every opportunity we’ve given him, he’s taken advantage of.”
Though a highly-accomplished athlete at Phoenix Moon Valley High School — he was one of Arizona’s most decorated football players as a senior — McGaha, for a time, thought he would never get the chance to showcase his talent on a college stage.
Those doubts are long gone. And while McGaha knows he belongs with the Sun Devils, he admits to sometimes being “speechless” when thinking about playing at this level.
“There was a point when I felt I’d never get recruited or play in college,” McGaha said. “It was a dream of mine growing up, to play football. To be where I am right now is just … I’m blessed.”