When Aaron Pflugrad went down with turf toe there were a couple noticeable changes in the offensive depth chart at practice. Jamal Miles saw an increased number of reps at wide receiver and Kyle Middlebrooks started to get more playing time in the backfield.
A less publicized change had A.J. Pickens seeing more time as well at slot receiver. Pickens caught the first pass of his career against Oregon State and made it count for an impressive 26 yards.
Last Saturday, Pickens built on his Oregon State performance and doubled the number of catches he had against Washington. Pickens finished the game with two catches for thirty-one yards and is now averaging close to twenty yards a reception for the season. If Pickens can sustain such a high average, more balls will undoubtedly come his way.
“At practice I’ve been working really hard since my man Pflu got hurt,” acknowledged Pickens. “I knew I had to step up. I stayed locked in the game and when my number was called I tried to make some big plays to help the team.
“I was really excited. I’ve been working hard to get a chance to make some plays. (The win over Washington) was really big. We practiced hard because we knew we needed to get the win with our backs against the wall. We practiced well and came to play.”
Similar to Pflugrad, Pickens isn’t a physically imposing receiver. Listed at 5’10” 172 the dynamic of his game is his explosion and athleticism. The sophomore’s strength is stretching yards after and making defenders miss.
“I’ve worked on improving my focus, mentally and physically, catching the ball and getting up field,” Pickens commented. “We go hard as a group and we trust each other to go out and make plays.”
Coming out of Don Antonio Lugo High School in Chino, Calif. Pickens was rated by Scout.com as a three-star recruit and the 113th wide receiver in his class. He was a jack-of-all-trades in high school returning kicks, playing running back and catching balls at receiver. Pickens received offers from three other Pac-10 schools in addition to ASU; Arizona, Oregon State and Washington State.
For Pickens, it wasn’t easy waiting for his chance to shine.
“It was tough,” Pickens confessed. “I had to have a lot of patience. I just kept practicing hard because I knew one day I would get my time.”
Offensive Coordinator Noel Mazzone’s speed based, wide-open offense was also difficult for Pickens to learn. The system in place now is so radically different than the one Rich Olson had implemented and Pickens studied for his first two years at ASU. Transitioning to a new system can take some time, but Pickens has found the transition to be relatively easy.
“(The system) is nice,” Pickens remarked. “I was a little confused in the beginning but after a while it started getting easy.”
With half the season down, the 3-3 Sun Devils need a strong finish against a schedule that isn’t very forgiving if they’re going to go to their first bowl game since the Holliday Bowl in 2007. Pickens is aware and working hard to be ready to help the team whenever his number is called.
“I just have to keep doing what I’m doing,” Pickens stated. “Just try to get in the game whenever possible and make plays when I get the chance.”