It’s nice when you are a junior college player, and major college programs offer you a scholarship without even seeing you play.
The player is taking a leap of faith when he commits to a program without even talking with the coach. Brandon Aiyuk ( pronounced eye-yook) did just that. Even more remarkable, he accepted a scholarship not knowing what position he would play.
Aiyuk was having a spectacular season in the California JUCO system in 2017. There are 69 JUCO teams in California alone. He led the entire system that year with 14 receiving TDs and 60 receptions for 960 yards in 10 games. JUCO teams only play up to 11 games a year. In a 52-30 win he had 6 receptions for 82 yards, 2 TDs, and a kickoff return for a score. He also had 2 punt return TDs called back due to penalties.
Aiyuk put in extra time in the offseason to get his body ready for the rigor of playing full time on offense and special teams. His assistant coach Daniel Diaz said, “Brandon having the ability go back and return punts and kicks and then to play offense is a tribute to the work he put into himself during our offseason program. He can run back a long punt and turn right back around and make plays on offense.”
He accepted a scholarship to play at Arizona State University for former Jets coach Herman “You play to win the game!” Edwards. He visited the campus for the first time during spring practice still not knowing where he would play. “I was watching the wide receivers, Aiyuk said, “and Coach Herm was joking around telling me ‘don’t get too comfortable over there with the receivers’ because he wants me to play defensive back. I’m not sure where I’m going to play and I talked to a lot of people on the visit. I think when I get there I’ll play both positions and they’ll see how I respond. I think I’m a receiver, but we’ll see what happens.”
Coaches on both sides of the ball wanted his services, “He’s an athlete,” said ASU cornerbacks coach Tony White. “We are going to figure out after spring ball how that goes depending on depth and all that stuff. Again, first thing you do when you watch the film, he is the best athlete on the field. You put him at slot receiver and he’s taking hitch screens and he’s making dudes miss and he’s exploding by them and then you watch him on his return game and he is a guy who catches the ball and he diagnoses the field well and makes quick decisions. Those are all traits of a good defensive back/good slot. So, we are going to wait and see and let the guys play it out and go through spring ball and find out where he is going to help the team the most.”
“He’s dynamic with the ball in his hand,” said offensive coordinator Rob Likens. “That’s the No. 1 thing with that kid. Whether he plays defensive back or safety or whatever if he ends up playing on offense, I know this: he is going to help us as a returner. That kid just needs to ball in his hands. We’ll see. That’s something Herm (Edwards) will have to answer about where the guy ends up. But he definitely needs the ball in his hands to impact the game.”
Even the special teams coach Shawn Slocum wanted his services. “Coach Slocum told me that when I get here (in the summer) to make sure I get with my punter a lot and catch a lot of punts and fight for that punt returner spot. He wants that position to e more effective because last year they only had two punts returns that were ten yards or longer. We mostly talked about punt return but I can kick return as well,” Aiyuk said.
They settled on wide receiver for Aiyuk along with some special teams work. His first season he missed all of spring ball. It took a little time for him to absorb the new offense. There also is a stark contrast between JUCO and the higher level of college football. He still managed to play in all 13 games (starting 3) posting 33 receptions for 474 yards with 3 TDs. He finished secnd on the team in receiving yards behind N’Keal Harry who was selected in the first round of the 2019 NFL Draft by New England.
He started his second year (2019) with a bang in the first game of the year. This was near the end of the half driving for at least a field goal.
This is what you call showing off your athleticism in a big way. The hurdle actually takes him out of bounds preserving a timeout. This is the type of play where Aiyuk shines. Given the ball in space as a punt and kickoff returner his specialty is finding the holes using his vision to weave through traffic. This makes him lethal on slants, slip screens, and any play that allows him to set up blocks while avoiding defenders.
This next clip is a depiction of exactly what I am talking about. This is a little bubble screen where he can sift through the crowd, work off his blocks, and use his speed.
In this game he had only 4 receptions for 140 yards and this TD. He can also run little dig routes or out cuts to get you a first down.
Still the best equation for a receiver like this is: ball + space = good. He is a homerun hitter. Let him swing for the fences.
While watching this game I saw the greatest performance by a punter in college history. Michael Turk whose uncle Matt Turk was an NFL punter for 19 seasons. His other uncle Daniel Turk was an offensive lineman (long snapper) for 15 NFL seasons.
Michael Turk is a sophomore who punted 5 times in this game with punts of 64, 62, 65, 49, and 75 yards. His 5 punt 315 total yards and 63 yard average (for 5 punts or more) is now an NCAA record. Plus it was his Sun Devils debut. It’s nice to punt in the dry air of the desert.
Back to Brandon Aiyuk...
Aiyuk is also good at double moves that stop his defenders’ feet. This next play is the dagger that knocked Oregon from the conversation for the College Football Playoff. This play shut that door completely.
This was a nice grab. As soon as Aiyuk regains his balance the two players closing fast are not closing the gap anymore. Aiyuk puts on the jets then smokes the two players chasing them.
Since Aiyuk has limited experience playing against talented players, he will struggle at times against press coverage. He is kind of a tweener as a receiver at 5’ 11 3/4” 201 lbs. He has a strong lower half, but he is not especially powerful. The best way to combat that is to play him in the slot where it is tough to press a receiver. He may need time with the strength coach on his new team to aid him with releases and contested catches.
On this next play ASU has him in the slot which gives him a free release.He is double covered with players on either side of his shoulders. He gives a simple nod to the outside then cuts back inside. He even gets held by the outside contain man.
It doesn’t make a difference as Aiyuk breaks wide open. The quarterback should have led him more towards the sideline, away from the coverage and into open space. The ball is also underthrown as Aiyuk has to wait on it which allows the defenders back into the play. This is not a particularly great route. The coverage was horrendous, but it does show you how speed and quickness can accentuate any mistake the defense makes. You can teach better route running, but you can’t teach speed.
Speed is deadly to a defense especially when you make a mistake or just slightly misread a play. This next play is a fine example of that.
This play is an RPO (run pass option) with Aiyuk as the X receiver on the left of the offense. Aiyuk runs a simple slant, but you need to watch the quarterback. He decides whether this play is a run or pass. The QB gets the snap. He barely moves as the running back comes to take the ball. The QB’s head is looking directly at the right inside linebacker. If that player stays put in his position or drops into his zone coverage the ball gets handed to the running back. When (like in this play) the linebacker heads towards the line of scrimmage, the QB throws the ball to the slant route. When the linebacker doesn’t drop into his zone he leaves a huge throwing window for the QB. Aiyuk does the rest by himself.
This wasn’t even a mistake. It was a small glitch in a defensive scheme. If this was an average X receiver this play is about an 8 or 9 yard gain, but the speed element makes all the difference. Aiyuk has great speed, but he is also elusive, with great contact balance and great vision in the open field.
When the play works, but the defense doesn’t adjust what do you do? You run the same play looking for the same results.
The same cornerback in coverage is 8 yards off the line of scrimmage and even bailing on the snap. He still barely gets a hand on Aiyuk as he flies by him. Same look, same play, same result. It actually was easier the second time.
So what happens when you catch a couple of long TDs against a team? They play soft coverage with a safety roaming over top so you don’t get beat deep. In this situation the Sun Devils would love a TD, but getting into field goal range is also good. You can go for the TD after you are close enough for an easy field goal.
Aiyuk is more than a deep threat receiver. He caught 65 balls for 1,192 yards and 8 TD’s in 2019. This play is a simple out pattern that gets them within range of their kicker. When you have speed, plays like this are almost akin to stealing.
I mentioned before that Aiyuk has good contact balance. He isn’t really strong. He also is not a great breaker of tackles on the run. Yet when he catches the ball he has good strength from the waist down. He can break tackles and even lunge for extra yards. He is not a track speed guy. He is a fast football guy who is used to contact.
This is a simple but nice play design as the X receiver takes the coverage deep then Aiyuk as the Z receiver runs what we would call a belly route under the clear out. Aiyuk looks very comfortable on these routes. Remember he came to ASU not knowing whether he would play offense or defense. He is still learning his craft. He took a huge step forward this year. He was their go to receiver.
What is also nice about Aiyuk is that while he acclimates himself into an offense he still can contribute on special teams. He returned 29 kickoffs and 25 punt returns in his two years at ASU. He averaged over 27 yards on kickoffs and nearly 12 yards on punt returns. On punt returns it takes a special type of open field vision to be successful.
You can see this is not great blocking. There are defenders everywhere, but Aiyuk finds a way through the crowd then into the clear. This is why you want the ball in the hands of a player like Aiyuk. He has vision to set up then exploit poor spacing by the defense.
The bubble screens the Jets used to run for Quincy Enunwa over and over were successful, but they never broke open a splash play because Enunwa doesn’t have this type of skillset. These same plays to Aiyuk could yield the same positive chain moving gains but there would be an occasional game changing play mixed in a few times a year.
Like I said before, speed is deadly to a defense if you make a mistake.
In this game there are under 2 minutes to play. Arizona State is down by a TD with the ball on its own the 12 yard line. It is fourth down.
This is a head-scratcher of a defensive call in this situation. For reference, Aiyuk has 9 receptions for 161 yards in the game up to this point. Yet the defense leaves the corner on an island with no help and no safety in the middle of the field. All Aiyuk has to do is cross the face of the corner. All the QB has to do is put the ball out in front of Aiyuk, At the very least it’s a first down.
Aiyuk does one better by using that good lower body strength to muscle his way into the end zone. This was also a pressure catch with the game on the line on a fourth down. Aiyuk is not immune from the occasional drop so to be put into a do or die situation and come through shows some mental toughness.
This next play is just a skinny post run by Aiyuk from a “10” personnel grouping with 3 WRs to the right of the formation, a RB who will run out into the flat, and Aiyuk as the X receiver out of the picture on the left side This grouping pulls the safeties into coverage at the top of the screen.
With the defense maxed out in coverage, and the middle linebacker faking a blitz the middle of the field is wide open. Once the QB sees Aiyuk begin to cross the face of the corner he lets the pass go. Then it’s off to the races. The middle linebacker is way too slow to get back into the play. This is another simple pass that is game-changing play because of the speed.
This last play is a dig route that is run very uniquely but also quite effectively. Aiyuk is the Z receiver on the play. He comes out hard, makes almost a complete stop, turns his body in a fake on a flat route, and comes back inside.
This is another easy little pass that ends up being a 19 yard gain and a first down. Most of the routes Aiyuk runs are simple patterns that are effective because of his speed and his determination. He doesn’t just go through the motions. He gives a great effort on every play. He will need work to broaden his route tree in the NFL, but he has enough variation to be a fine complementary receiver in his rookie year.
You have not heard a lot about Aiyuk so far this Draft season, but the scouts know exactly who he is.
Dane Brugler of the Athletic and formerly a draft analyst for CBS Sports called Aiyuk, “the definition of a playmaker.”
Jim Nagy the director of the Senior Bowl said, “I haven’t met a scout yet that doesn’t have Brandon Aiyuk graded above N’Keal Harry from last year.”
Remember N’Keal Harry was a first round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft.
Aiyuk was scheduled to participate in the Senior Bowl but was red flagged because of a minor hip injury so he was not allowed to compete during the week.
Brandon Aiyuk is a game-breaking receiver who can make plays all over the field. He is not a finished product, but he has skills that could help any team. The fact that he excels on special teams is an added bonus.
He needs to work on his route tree and his route running. He gives away some of his routes that a skilled corner or safety will take advantage of. He needs to work on his hands as he is not immune to concentration drops. He can use some time with the strength coach and needs to work on his hand usage to break press coverage.
I have not heard a bad word about Aiyuk in the locker room. He seems to have good character and a team friendly demeanor.
Every team needs a game-changing receiver (the Jets more than most), a player who can line up anywhere and run routes all over the field, aplayer who can turn a simple play into a splash play.
I currently have a mid thirrd round grade on Aiyuk. That could change, but he will not last that long during the draft.
A lot of people are talking about WRs. Lamb and Jeudy are at the top and rightfully so. They are great prospects, but don’t sleep on Aiyuk, Denzel Mims or Jalen Reagor who are are not as polished but are game-changers.
PJeudy and Lamb both come from highly successful programs with great coaching. Heck Alabama may have better NFL coaching than some NFL teams.
Players from teams without the benefit of great coaches sometimes surprise and flourish with the better coaching in the NFL.
The New York Jets need a great receiver, maybe two to help the offense. There are a number of great prospects out there. This kid is one of them.
That’s what I think.
What do you think?