Heading into his second season with Arizona State, tight end Raymond Epps is ready to stand out among a crowded group. Playing alongside senior Kody Kohl, Epps looks poised to make early contributions in new offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey’s scheme.
Throughout fall camp, Lindsey has used more 12-personnel sets (one back, two tight ends, two receivers) during portions of practice open to the media compared to his days at Southern Miss. In 2015, he used more 11-personnel sets (one back, one tight end, three receivers), which helped the Golden Eagles’ offense produce a 4,000-yard passer and two 1,000-yard rushers in the same backfield.
When ASU uses 12-personnel sets, Epps could step in and receive significant playing time right away at the second tight end spot.
The top tight end on the depth chart, Kohl managed to change his body rather significantly heading into his final year with ASU. The fifth-year senior added 20-25 pounds of bulk to his frame, making him an enticing prospect to not only flex out but to also stay in-line and block edge rushers.
However, Epps had his own physical makeover as well. He has made a case for himself to be one of the most improved players on the roster from this time last year compared to now.
When Epps arrived from Arizona Western College in Yuma, he was about 20-25 pounds under his goal weight. He had a frame reminiscent of a thicker wideout meant to be flexed out as a receiver. Now he’s around 250 pounds, near Kohl, which makes him another intriguing player for ASU’s new quarterback -- whether it be sophomore Manny Wilkins or redshirt freshman Brady White -- to use as a security blanket off the line of scrimmage.
“Last year, when I came in (last spring), it was a lot different from what I was used to playing at JUCO,” Epps said. “I definitely had to get stronger, you know, taking on bigger opponents. Kind of through the year last year, on contact, I felt like I needed to get a lot stronger. Every time, say if I’m on power clean I had 250 (pounds), I wanted to do 265. More weight, do a little bit more to get stronger. Whatever it took for me to get stronger.”
Not only have his weight room habits improved heading into this year, but his history as a former wide receiver gives him another knowledgeable advantage. The route running ability Epps has flashed shows his all-around potential as a three-down tight end.
“Just basically being able to get leverage on the defenders, knowing how to run routes the right way, being light on my feet,” Epps said of things he has an advantage on off the line of scrimmage, as a former wide receiver. “That’s definitely helped me in the pass (game).”
Last season, Epps had just four catches for 52 yards and a touchdown during his first year adjusting to the Division I level of competition. In his second year in the program, however, his role looks to expand in an offense that has the potential to feature both him and Kohl.
How Lindsey utilizes ASU’s tight ends, especially how Kohl and Epps are used in 12-personnel sets, will be something to keep an eye on throughout the first few weeks of the season. If the tight ends make an expected leap in production, it takes more pressure off of ASU’s running backs, juniors Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage, who will have a quarterback alongside them who hasn’t thrown a pass on the college level yet.
Epps’ development has inspired confidence in tight ends coach Del Alexander, who said the tight end position will still have the potential to be a key factor in the ASU offense for years to come, because of players like Epps and sophomore JayJay Wilson.
“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.”
Head coach Todd Graham has developed his program as a place for junior college players to obtain a heavy role. Even this season, first-year junior college transfers such as Koron Crump, J'Marcus Rhodes and A.J. McCollum seem ready to break out from the JUCO scene onto the main stage. That’s what Epps is hoping for, too.
“I think that transitioning players, 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.”