Arizona State coach Todd Graham may not have told his receivers to invest in stickier gloves this week but at a minimum he's asked them to be more glued in to their chief responsibility: catching the football.
"I've seen more drops around here in the last two weeks than I've seen in a year and a half," Graham said Tuesday. "It's just a lack of concentration. And those are two possessions we lost (against Stanford). You lose those possessions. I'm not saying we would have scored there but you still lost the possessions."
Graham reasons that this high number of double-digit drops is simply due to a lack of focus by the receivers and senior tight end Chris Coyle echoed this based on his own observations.
"It's all mental," Coyle said. "Personally, I'm very disappointed in the couple of times the ball has come to me and I haven't been able to bring it in. Even if the defender is right on me, it's something that I've learned growing up playing football. If the ball touches my hands, I have to bring it in. In traffic, I have to expect to be hit over the middle and get the ball. With the other guys, they have to focus and they have to do their part as well. I can only do so much to get them motivated and when we get back to the sidelines, I'll try to get their heads back in the game and say, 'Hey, focus on the next ball, bring it in,' but they have to make the mental decision that they are going to catch everything that comes their way. Really it's just confidence and building it up through the week. Catching everything in practice will carry over to game day."
Last year, Coyle was the top targeted receiver for the Sun Devils with 57 catches for 696 yards while averaging 12.2 yards per catch. The next closest player was current senior running back Marion Grice, who had 41 catches for 425 yards with an average of 10.4 yards per catch.
So far this year, Coyle has six catches for 126 yards while sophomore wide receiver Jaelen Strong has improved every game so far this year and has 24 catches for 330 yards.
"They're always going to have one or two guys matched up against me at all times," Coyle said. "What that has shown so far is it's opening up Jaelen (Strong). Eventually I kind of figured out I just have to have my patience and just continue to run my routes hard and Jaelen (Strong) will open things up for me on the inside and we will just go back and forth off of each other."
This year, the second-most targeted receiver is sophomore running back D.J. Foster. With 38 catches for 533 yards last year, Foster currently has 19 catches for 178 yards this year and stressed the positive work ethic from all the receivers.
"Last year, there wasn't so much of a threat out there; that was kind of what other teams would say," Foster said. "They would just stack the box, so knowing that, the receivers took that as a chip on their shoulders and stepped up this year."
However, receivers are still making key mistakes. Through three games, the Sun Devils have recorded double-digit drops including no fewer than five in a loss to Stanford Saturday.
"Everyone is kind of worried about other stuff and we need to relax a little more, including myself," Foster said. "When you're out there, just let it come to you. I feel like we're overthinking stuff and we do have a lot of stuff, got a lot on our plate at receiver, so I think just relax."
Sophomore wide receiver Richard Smith has especially been a target for criticism as he has had at least four drops in the last two games, but teammate Foster sees all the work Smith puts in at practice.
"Rick is busting his butt off in practice and stuff so Rick definitely is in the game plan every week," Foster said.
Wide receivers coach DelVaughn Alexander did point out that Smith is in fact still relatively new at all of this and that he is playing a lot larger role than he has in the past.
"We pulled off all his opportunities and target throws from the start of the season and you look at it and he's made some of the short catches and then there's some obviously in the game before last that he should have made, but other than that, I talked to him before the game and he said he was confident and felt great," Alexander said. "I think he caught the ones he was supposed to and the other ones, he's in that zone and peeking and the ball is out in front of him, more than he can extend."
In addition to Rick Smith, another wide receiver catching coaches' attention is true freshman wide receiver Cameron Smith.
Cameron Smith had been dealing with a hamstring injury since August 10, until he finally practiced fully on September 17.
"I know coaches want to get freshman receiver Cam (Smith) out there," Foster said. "I know he got a few reps at the end of the game, but I know they're looking for him to be a little more healthy and they want to get Cameron (Smith) into the game."
Alexander said he recognizes Cameron Smith's importance as well as all the other back-up wide receivers in the group, but points to the team's inability to move the chains as a limiting factor.
"You look at the game and you can see where and when we were three and out or not converting first downs in the first half and on third downs in the first half," Alexander said. "That limits opportunities for guys that are back-ups that you want to get in in certain situations. So not until the second half you know is when I tell Cam to get on the bike because you can see that we were extending drives and we were starting to move the ball and his opportunity was coming and he took advantage of it."
While the receiving group as a whole has a combined 86 catches for 1,084 yards this season, the little things have been exposed as weaknesses to this point.
"I think the biggest concern is that the guys are trying to impress and make plays," Alexander said. "You know, you look at the fight that we had in the fourth quarter and later in the game, and guys are really trying to make plays. You don't have to try to make plays. You have to do the fundamental things and then you'll be fine in terms of squeezing the ball or not fading away from it. The little things are what is hurting us in dropping the ball."
Coaches and players agree that a lack of desire or demonstrated depth isn't to blame.
"I think our receivers getting pushed every day more is key," Foster said. "I mean I think Coach Alexander is doing such a great job with them. I can see he stepped up his game as a coach and our receivers look a lot better."
With all the different positions on the team there are varying skills to highlight during practice, but for the receivers this week, the focus is on persevering through fatigue.
"The biggest challenge is staying mentally focused when we are driving down the field up-tempo because you do get tired," Coyle said. "This is Pac-12 football and there are great athletes out there. They are playing hard, so as we are doing these long drives, 80-90-yard drives down the field, it starts catching up with you. You're breathing hard and it's hard to focus so we got to be able to calm ourselves down, lock in on the play call, go out and do the job correctly. That's one of the big things in the past game, there may have been a couple pass calls that had come my way and I wasn't able to get quite mentally focused enough to get in and run the perfect route that needed to be run. That's something I'm working on at practice and I'm going to stay afterwards with T.K. (junior quarterback Taylor Kelly) to get our connection back that we had last year. That's what we're going to be working on."
Defensive line adjustments
Before the beginning of the season Graham said this year's defensive line depth would be improved.
That will certainly be tested Saturday against USC.
Starting sophomore defensive tackle Jaxon Hood was injured midway through Saturday's loss to Stanford and is very doubtful for this week's game.
Hood's initial replacement against the Cardinal, 6-foot-2, 270 pound senior defensive tackle Jake Sheffield, didn't have a tackle and was moved around by a strong offensive line.
As a result, ASU coaches have made some changes.
Senior defensive lineman Will Sutton will be in his usual role as 3-technique defensive tackle flanked by redshirt senior defensive lineman Gannon Conway at the 1-technique tackle and senior defensive end Davon Coleman.
It's a change for Conway as usually he is lined up in the 5-technique end spot.
"It's a definitely a different position," Conway said. "I'm just trying to do whatever I can to help our team. Since Jaxon (Hood) is hurt, somebody has to step up and I'm trying to do that."
Conway said that moving inside will be more physically demanding.
"The biggest challenge is (offensive linemen) thirty to forty pounds more than I am," Conway said. "I'm going to get a lot more double team looks and the guys are a little bit bigger so I have to know those things are going to happen. But as long as I stay low, keep focused on my fundamentals and technique I think I should do just fine."
Down one defensive starter heading into this weekend, the defensive line will have to rely a little more on its deeper reserves for production when substitutions need to be made
During the 11-on-11 session observed by media Tuesday, sophomore defensive lineman Mo Latu was lined up at the 1-technique tackle, junior defensive lineman Marcus Hardison was lined up at the 5-technique end and sophomore defensive lineman Sean O'Grady was lined up at the 3-technique tackle.
If there was a bright spot from the Stanford loss along the defensive front, it was the performance of Latu, who was credited with just one tackle but seemed to be in on more than that. The 370-pounder was much tougher to move off the ball than Sheffield, and earned praise from Graham following the game for his ability to clog run lanes.
After playing run-heavy teams Stanford and Wisconsin the last two weeks, ASU is expecting a lot more versatility from USC, even in the run game.
"They're very talented," Hardison said. "Don't get me wrong, Stanford and Wisconsin are great teams but USC is very talented. They run a lot more different running plays and they have a lot of very good athletes on the offensive line and in their skill players."
Freshman linebacker Chans Cox (shoulder), senior pass rush specialist Junior Onyeali (shoulder) and freshman linebacker A.J. Latu (ankle) are all out for the season according to Graham. Cox was already expected to redshirt. Onyeali may be able to qualify for a medical redshirt that would grant him a fifth year of eligibility if he wishes to pursue it. Latu will likely apply for a medical redshirt after playing special teams in just one game.
Redshirt linebacker Salamo Fiso was named a starter and worked ahead of senior linebacker Steffon Martin at the SAM position.
Rick Smith and Foster each had a drop while practicing punt returns.
Cameron Smith was getting second team reps as a punt gunner.