In an offense predicated on spreading the field, lining up in four receiver sets and operating at a breakneck pace, talented wide receivers are a precious commodity.
Thankfully for Arizona State, their coffers are overflowing with such wealth.
Perhaps not since the early 2000s, when Shaun McDonald and Derek Hagan were annually topping 1,000 yards, has ASU had the depth of wide receiver talent that their 2011 squad possesses. The fact that T.J. Simpson's injury, while tragic, doesn't diminish the expectations speaks volumes on the abilities of this dynamic group.
Willie is the team's leading returning receiver after catching 36 passes for 442 yards and a team high six touchdowns. He's got tremendous size (6'4", 220 pounds) and strength. He was best described by former Sun Devil Kerry Taylor, last season's leading receiver, as "a beast out on the field. He can run, catch, block and is probably the most physical receiver I have seen at ASU in my time there."
Willie made a habit of making clutch drive-sustaining catches on third down last season, a trait that when combined with his blocking ability, has drawn favorable comparisons to Hines Ward. Willie's sure hands and experience should make him a favorite target of quarterback Brock Osweiler.
Like Willie, Robinson is 6'4" and 220 pounds, yet he possesses greater speed, creating matchup nightmares for opposing secondaries. However, Robinson's on-field production has yet to match the levels of his considerable physical skills. He posted career highs in all categories last season, with 29 receptions for 387 yards and five touchdowns, but if he can finally piece together his game and maintain his focus on the game, look for most of those numbers to at least double this season.
Rounding out the seniors is Pflugrad, a former transfer from Oregon. Much smaller than Willie and Robinson (5'10", 180 pounds), Pflugrad played extensively in the slot last season, catching 29 passes, although a turf toe injury limited him to 10 catches over the season's final seven games. Now healthy, the sure-handed Pflugrad has moved out wide during camp and impressed.
Maybe the fastest wideout on the team may not actually be a full-time wideout. Sophomore Jamal Miles began last season at running back but was later moved to wide receiver, although his primary contributions came on special teams. That versatility led to his inclusion on the Paul Hornung Award list, an honor presented to the most versatile player in the country. He should be the primary punt and kick returner and see some time at running back, especially given the uncertain return of Deantre Lewis.
Last season, Simpson was the team's top deep threat, so when he tore his ACL, there was concern that the Devils had lost that field-stretching ability. Those fears have subsided substantially with the strong camp put together by Rashad Ross, a junior college transfer and converted defensive back. Timed with a 4.37 second 40 yard dash, Ross was called a "real pleasant surprise" by head coach Dennis Erickson, and could fill Simpson's former role. Another speedster, sophomore J.J. Holliday, could also help downfield once his broken collarbone heals in a few weeks.
Another former juco player is senior George Bell, whose playing time last year was hampered in part by his battle with drops. Bell has the talent to be a contributor for the Sun Devils and whether he can leverage his off-season improvement to on-field production remains to be seen.
All told, this is a very talented group. Along with an equally impressive stable of running backs that should prevent defenses on hanging back, the wide receivers have all the makings of an elite--and highly productive--unit.