One of the more intriguing and unclear sub-plots to Arizona State's offensive approach heading into the 2015 season is how much the tight end and 3-back positions will factor from a productivity standpoint.
There's been wide variance in this regard since Todd Graham arrived in Tempe prior to the 2012 season. He interested a player, Chris Coyle, who broke a school record among tight ends with 57 catches for 696 yards -- both team-highs -- in Graham's first season when the Sun Devils had a very underwhelming group of wide receivers.
More recently, the Sun Devils haven't utilized the position to nearly the same degree, perhaps in part due to the emergence of now-departed Jaelen Strong as a star receiver option as well as very capable receiving threats operating out of the ASU backfield, and then-quarterback Taylor Kelly's seeming tendency to target certain players.
But at least to some degree, ASU's players haven't been quite as capable in this regard the last couple years and this has been a focal point of returning junior starter Kody Kohl in the months since last season ended. Kohl has streamlined his body, as lean as we've seen at probably 225-230 pounds on his 6-foot-3 frame. Graham and tight ends coach Chip Long have each raved about the improved speed and route running of Kohl, earned through hard work on route running and athletic-based training in the off-season.
Now, the Sun Devils don't have returning star players at wide receiver or in the slot two-back role, and senior ASU quarterback Mike Bercovici seems a little more inclined to spread the ball out. All of that, coupled with the development of Kohl could lead to more of a role in the passing game, but it should be pointed out that Kohl isn't to be considered an extremely rangy or dynamic receiving threat. Even so, neither was Coyle, and his contributions in this regard where essential to ASU's success early in the Graham-era.
Kohl could be similarly important, not only because of ASU's relative lack of proven productivity at wide receiver, but also because elsewhere at the tight end/3-back group there is basically no returning experience and not much depth. Sophomore Raymond Epps, a junior college transfer out of Arizona Western and former wide receiver, is long and athletic but still somewhat raw. He's made substantial progress since joining the program in the spring, which was crucial to his assimilation into the ASU offense, but demonstrating that in games is an entirely different thing.
Epps, at 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds, can athletically stress defenses better than ASU's other options at the position. The questions are whether he'll be assignment sound, get aligned properly pre-snap and how effective he'll be as a blocker.
ASU's going to have a tight end on the field in most situations and that player is going to be Kohl a vast majority of the time. About 20-30 percent of the time the Sun Devils will be in two-tight end formations, the frequency of this depending on opponent style of play and the types of down and distance situations they face. When that happens, Kohl is likely to be joined on the field by either Epps, or sophomore Grant Martinez, who has been out of action the last several weeks after suffering a sprained ankle that will very likely keep him out of action for the opener with Texas A&M Saturday.
Martinez is a natural pass catcher who has worked hard to gain size and become a more physical and versatile player at the position. He had shown clear progress in this regard before being hurt. When healthy, Martinez will likely compete with Epps for the role in ASU's two-tight end looks.
From a blocking standpoint, with Kohl leaner and focused on being more broadly skilled, it will be interesting to see how he and the Sun Devils handle bigger bodies from an in-line alignment at the line of scrimmage. He'll often be asked to block bigger players at defensive end and linebacker, most frequently seal blocks and down blocks that have a major impact on ASU's perimeter run game success or lack thereof. Ideally, teams would like to have a really big, long, powerful and physical player in this role, but the Sun Devils won't have that unless they decide to play an extra offensive tackle in such a capacity.Quotable
ASU head coach Todd Graham on Kody Kohl: “The other thing I’ll tell you I’m excited about in our passing game is Kody and I’m not going to lie to you, that surprised me. I thought Kody was a solid tight end. He just improved so much in the offseason and this spring. So much faster, so much better route running. I really think he has the potential to have a breakout year.”
ASU tight ends coach Chip Long on Kody Kohl: “I’m real excited about Kody. He had a great spring and he carried it over in the summer. He did a great job in the weight room. He’s got his strength back. Last year, a lot of people didn’t realize with his shoulder, that he didn’t have full gain of strength and now he’s got it. (He’s got) a year under his belt so he’s extremely confident, playing a really high level and his speed has increased about three times.”
Chip Long on Raymond Epps: "Physically he’s exactly what you want. We’ve just got to bring him along mentally, get him mentally tougher and physically tougher as well. He has all the characteristics you want: length, speed, great ability to get up and makes plays. He’s just got to go through the process. We’ve installed a whole lot. We’re really playing physical right now and it’s something he’s got to get used to. We’ve got guys here three and four years so they get it. He’s just got to come on and get it. He will. There’s a big difference when you put your hand in the ground. It’s like a whole different level.”
Chip Long on Grant Martinez: "I talk to Grant pretty much every day and I tell him I expect him to take the same track as Kody Kohl did. It's Year 3 for him now, I know he's coming off injury but so did Kody. I know what Grant can do, it's now a matter of him doing it consistently. He's long, he's makes some really great catches out there that show you what's possible for him. He's getting his body better, looking stronger. He's a great kid. If I had a daughter, Grant Martinez is the type of guy I'd love for her to marry. So now it's time to grab the reins and say, 'I'm going to show you what I can do coach.' I have big expectations for him because he's capable of big things. I'm ready to see him out there doing it."
Kody Kohl on his improved route running: "My coached helped me out with this a lot but I worked on running my feet at the top of my route, keeping my shoulders over my knees and running my arms and actually I've progressed a lot and my route running is pretty good this year so I have a lot more routes this year, a lot more opportunities."
Kody Kohl on his approach this season and Texas A&M: “My mindset is just do everything correctly. Just go out there and destroy them. Don’t think and just go. 100 miles per hour and I want them to feel our pain after we’re done with them. I want them to regret having us scheduled. I want them to hurt after we play them.”
ASU quarterback Mike Bercovici on Kody Kohl: “Kody’s extremely dynamic, not just in the pass game but in the run game and that’s what’s huge for that 3-back position especially. We’re putting a lot on him because he can do so much. He can split out wide and he can give corners problems and he can really give safeties problems. So what we’re able to do with him is going to be pretty special. But, he’s just a hard worker and that’s what makes him good.”