Roster turnover happens in college athletics. That’s just the way it is. On the Arizona State offense, the strong-armed Mike Bercovici, with a few starts and a Jael-Mary under his belt, takes over for three-year starter Taylor Kelly. Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage are headlining a backfield that will take over the bulk of the carries for D.J. Foster, who moved to wide receiver, and the offensive line continues to shift and get tweaked now that Jamil Douglas is playing on Sundays.
There’s also a massive spot, at 6’4” to be exact, on the outside left by Jaelen Strong, a third round pick for the Houston Texans in the 2015 NFL Draft.
The above-mentioned Foster will provide stability to the receiving corps, but there’s a Jaelen Strong-sized receiver ready to be the target of the back shoulder fades and jump balls that made Strong a household name: Ellis Jefferson.
At 6’5”, Jefferson spent the past two seasons studying the preparation and play of the similarly-sized Strong; watching with the same level of awe the Sun Devil faithful had when they witnessed the Jael Mary and one handed touchdown grabs against Notre Dame and rival Arizona. Strong leaves some very big shoes to fill.
So how do the Sun Devils fill that void?
“(Wide receiver coach DelVaughn Alexander) is one of the toughest coaches on the staff so our standards are really high,” Jefferson said. “With Jaelen Strong leaving, everyone is looking for who should be that receiver and I think it should be all of us, not just one receiver.”
Jefferson has two things in his favor most don’t have to help him progress into a big-time Pac-12 target: his roommates, Foster and quarterback Mike Bercovici.
“Obviously I live with him and I see how much he wants it, not just for himself, but for this team,” Bercovici said. “He’s one of the most selfless wide receivers I’ve ever seen in my life. He has serious capabilities to have a break-out season.”
The trio, who also room with safety and captain Jordan Simone, have used this offseason and collective downtime to help work on their games as they all transition into new roles.
“Being at a new position and stuff, there’s nothing better than having a wide receiver and quarterback in our house,” Foster said. “They’ve helped me tremendously make that transition, get in the playbook. Ellis definitely helped me with tips on techniques and advice.”
Foster is no slouch when it comes to receiving: he was second on the team last year with 62 receptions and 688 yards. But Jefferson has been a good soundboard for Foster as he moves outside the hash marks. And in helping his teammate and roommate, Jefferson is comprehending the offense better as well.
What’s the saying: “If you want to master something, teach it.”?
“I’ve picked up a lot from him, honestly,” Jefferson said. “I think I’ve taught him a lot…at the same time because him transitioning from a running back to a wide receiver, we go up in (Bercovici’s) room and we draw plays on the window.”
Jefferson has sketched play after play on his quarterback’s window, letting the game plan sink in. He has trained, conditioned, and prepped for his time on Frank Kush Field this year. While the on-field preparation is there, his mentor left him with a reminder to focus on why they play just as much as who they play.
“From what Jaelen told me back then is it’s bigger than football, you do it for the people back home,” Jefferson said. “That’s what made me climb even more up that mountain. He taught me a lot of things and where I am today, I feel like I’m not done, but I feel like I’ve improved.”
His teammates see the improvement, the work he has put in, and the type of receiver he can become.
“He knows what it takes in the offseason to build relationships and keep your head down and grind. He’s not the superstar out here, but one day he will be.,” Bercovici said.
“I think he knows that and he has that kind of confidence in himself.”
The size, the confidence, the preparation are there. Now it’s time to play some football.