With youth and inexperience at critical positions throughout Arizona State's offense this season, senior tight end Kody Kohl is a welcome sight for a coaching staff in search of veteran leadership.
The Gilbert, Arizona native was the first player in his recruiting class to commit to ASU, and his passion for Sun Devil football has manifested itself in a variety of ways through the years.
Kohl spent much of his early career pining for playing time, and when the Mesquite High product finally did earn an opportunity to start in 2014, he was considerably lighter than the average tight end.
Weighing somewhere between 220 and 225 pounds, Kohl would give up anywhere from 30-60 pounds against elite linemen he was tasked with blocking. Playing with a disadvantage in size at the line of scrimmage, blocking didn't come easily for Kohl, and this offseason, one of the Sun Devils' most important offensive players decided to do something about it.
Kohl pushed his limits in the weight room, and made rare improvements atypical of a fifth-year senior. The work paid off in the form of a 20-to-25 pound boost in his weight, and in the form of an honor from ASU sports performance coach Shawn Griswold as one of ASU's "Dirty Dozen."
Griswold selects 12 players to his "Dirty Dozen" for their superior efforts and overall excellence in ASU's summer conditioning program.
The honor provided Kohl with more than just a t-shirt and a token of pride, but with concrete evidence he did everything in his power to take his on-field performance to the next level.
“I feel like it’s going to help me with my blocking," Kohl said of the added weight. "Instead of just being position blocking, I want to be like overpowering the defenders making big holes for our running backs, because we have some of the best running backs in the country. If we can give them the opportunity, as much as I can help them be the best in the Pac-12 or country, then I’m going to do that.”
Griswold raved about Kohl's dedication, and ASU head coach Todd Graham took time during his media availability on both Thursday and Friday to single out Kohl's improved performance through fall camp.
Every college coach tosses out the cliche of "wanting to be more physical," but in Kohl's case, the size he's added allows him a better chance to compete as a blocker which Graham has taken notice of.
"We've made a lot of strides in the last few days in particular at our tight end blocking, and that's been a major point of emphasis for us," Graham said. "Kody (Kohl) has made dramatic improvements, and we still got a long way to go fundamentally. All of our tight ends are blocking better."
Epps said Kohl's willingness to show him the ropes has made him a more versatile tight end, while Alexander said the fact Kohl knows 2016 is his last chance to put a stamp on his Sun Devil career has keyed his determination to succeed.
“He’s (Kohl) not a real vocal leader, but obviously like most seniors, he’s trying to do everything right,” Alexander said. “He’s trying to make sure that there’s no stone unturned in his senior year and I think his presence is something that the other guys are gravitating to. You don’t have to just point it out and film and say, look at Kody, you point it out on film and what you’re asking for, you get it.”
Kohl's drive to add weight and make the most of his senior year is more than just a personal mission. A consummate teammate, Kohl knows ASU has talented tight ends waiting in the wings who could have surpassed him if he didn't make the necessary strides this offseason.
Since Kohl's arrival on campus, ASU has recruited the tight end position well, adding Epps, Wilson, redshirt freshman Thomas Hudson and true freshman Jared Bubak. As a senior, Kohl is excited about laying the foundation for the future in his final season, because he knows it won't be long before the Sun Devils are making even more improvements at the position.
“I’m more impressed with my tight end group every single day," Kohl said. "They’re going to surpass me over the next year or so. I’ve worked my *** off for five years, and these guys are on their third year still growing, getting stronger and faster. It’s unbelievable, they’re gonna be really good tight ends.”
Playing to a strength
As the offensive coordinator at Southern Miss last season, new ASU coordinator Chip Lindsey's offense largely featured 11-personnel sets with three receivers, one tight end and one back.
With junior running backs Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage both possessing the talent to be bell cow backs, Graham has talked about game planning to incorporate more two-back sets and maximize the value of ASU's best skill position players.
In portions of practice the media has viewed in fall camp, ASU hasn't displayed many two-back sets. Instead, the Sun Devils have tweaked Lindsey's primary personnel package and incorporated more 12-personnel sets, which feature two receivers, two tight ends and one running back.
Much like a two-back set would cater to the Sun Devils' strengths, a two-tight end set seemingly does so as well. Kohl's added bulk and experience makes him an invaluable piece in ASU's offense, while Epps has undergone a physical transformation this offseason and looks ready to contribute much more in his second season with the Sun Devils.
A junior college transfer who came to ASU with three years of eligibility, Epps said he's much more comfortable in his second season in the program after working with Griswold over the summer. Graham said the transition process is different for every player, and though Epps may not have been well prepared to play immediately, he has demonstrated more potential in year two.
"You look at how many freshmen All-American we’ve had, you look at the success we’ve had with our junior college players, their success pretty quickly on the field, we do a pretty good job transitioning on the field," Graham said. "I think every guy is different and I’m looking for, I think Raymond (Epps) has really dramatically improved and I’m looking for him to have a great year."
If ASU does incorporate two-tight end sets into its game plan more frequently this year, Epps' ability to block at the line of scrimmage and ward off pass rushers will help determine the Sun Devils' effectiveness.
Though ASU coaches and players have said the team's offensive line doesn't necessarily need tight ends to stay in and help protect the passer or rush out and carve running lanes for backs, its inexperience is an indicator the Sun Devils may at least begin the season using tight ends as extra blockers, even if the strategy is mostly precautionary.
At 6-foot-4 and 247 pounds, Epps projects as more of an inline blocker than Kohl, which is a part of his game he's sought to improve with his new position coach in Alexander.
“I’ve definitely grown well just basically using fundamentals, using the right steps, just being in the right place at the right time in order to get leverage on blocking bigger defenders," Epps said. "Most of the time it’s not about size, it’s about footwork and just who wants it more so that’s what Coach Alexander basically just coaches it up on.”
Moving up the ladder
While Kohl and Epps sit atop ASU's tight end depth chart, Wilson has the raw athletic potential to become the best player at the position group.
Wilson spent time practicing as a linebacker as a true freshman, and saw playing time on special teams during his first season with the program. This season, Wilson should still figure prominently into ASU's special teams game plans, but the 6-foot-2, 259-pound sophomore will begin to push Kohl and Epps for more in-game opportunities.
Like Epps, Wilson has emphasized improving as an in-line blocker to maximize his potential within ASU's scheme, and he said working with Alexander has helped him acclimate to what many coaches consider a very difficult position to learn and subsequently master.
“The best thing about him (Alexander) is that he’s just a really nice guy," Wilson said. "You can just feel like you can talk to him about anything, and that’s good because it makes you feel like you can ask him questions and he’s someone we feel comfortable learning from him.”
In many ways, Wilson and Kohl represent a stark contrast as football players, but they happen to line up at the same position. Kohl is the hard hat and lunch pail, coach's player, type of athlete, whereas Wilson is the athletically gifted, fluid former 4-star recruit who could have plugged in at a handful of different positions at the college level.
When Kohl spoke of his fellow tight ends surpassing him in the coming year, Wilson is the player who naturally comes to mind. Instead of letting that process take place organically or waiting until next year to watch Wilson's development, Kohl decided to help expedite it, and his mentality has made a significant impression on Wilson.
"He's (Kohl) a grinder, he's never a person that asks why he goes, he just does what he's asked and more," Wilson said. "We had a two-a-day yesterday, me and him were in the weight room in between practices working out, and I being completely honest, my freshman year if we came back from a two-a-day knowing we had practice later on I probably wouldn't have done that. But being with him for that year, I already knew he was going to be down there in the weight room. He has that effect on me, just as far as making me want to work harder."
Since Chris Coyle's 57-catch, 696-yard season in 2012, ASU has struggled to make inroads in the passing game with its tight ends. Even Coyle's production fell off by 50 percent during his senior season in 2013, and ASU hasn't quite recovered.
After last season, the top rung on the ladder of ASU tight ends was relatively low. Yet Kohl, the man standing on the highest rung, was determined to find a way to extend the ladder's reach this offseason.
Through his work in the weight room and his willingness to aid his teammates' improvement, Kohl has set ASU up for future success at the position, and Alexander has taken notice with the overall strides the unit has made.
“We’ve got some talent and some depth, it’s not some of those things that you’re worried about who the next guy is and it’s not one of those things that you’re worried about who the next guy is next year,” Alexander said. “We’ve got years of versatility and players lined up, so we feel great about the position.”
News and Notes
- Junior running back Demario Richard was out of a green non-contact jersey Friday and going through normal warm ups. Richard suffered an ankle injury earlier in the week and was wearing a light brace on Wednesday, but has just worn tape the past two days.
- Sophomore wide receiver Jalen Harvey was in a walking boot on Wednesday and was not in attendance at practice during the portion media viewed on Thursday, but was out of his boot and jogging through the warm up line on Friday. Harvey was wearing a green non-contact jersey, but was not working out at Muscle Beach.
- Senior linebackers Salamo Fiso and Carlos Mendoza were not in attendance at practice during the portion the media viewed on Friday.
- Freshman wide receiver N'Keal Harry was out of a green non-contact jersey and working with the second team offense during a team period after spending the last few practices at Muscle Beach.
- Redshirt freshman quarterback Brady White took reps with the first team offense during the 11-on-11 team period the media viewed and threw two interceptions including one to senior defensive tackle Viliami Latu after Latu dropped into a zone and defended a quick slant.
- Sophomore Tyler Whiley took the field with the first team defense at Spur linebacker during the 11-on-11 period. Whiley has practiced at wide receiver and cornerback during his career at ASU, and this was the first time the media has seen Whiley work at Spur.