Position review: Tight ends

Under the direction of first-year coordinator Chip Lindsey, Arizona State's offense deemphasized the role of the tight end in the Sun Devils' passing game.

Following former offensive coordinator Mike Norvell's departure to accept the head coaching job at Memphis, Arizona State head coach Todd Graham hired Southern Mississippi offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey to lead the Sun Devils' offense.

Lindsey entered ASU's program at a pivotal point, as the Sun Devils needed to settle on a new starting quarterback and four new offensive linemen for the 2016 season.

Additionally, the program's top two players in receptions in 2015, D.J. Foster and Devin Lucien, both graduated, leaving Lindsey and the Sun Devils with only a small handful of proven options on the offensive side of the ball.

Still, one of the few returning starters Lindsey inherited was senior tight end Kody Kohl, who caught 32 passes for 368 yards last season and entered the year as the Pac-12's top returning tight end.

While Kohl acknowledged his numbers could have been better if not for timely drops last year, he entered the season with the goal of surpassing the lofty single-season receiving records former ASU tight end Chris Coyle set during Graham's first season with the program in 2012. 

“I love Chris (Coyle) and I thought he was a great player, but I definitely think I’m better than Chris," Kohl said. "I have more speed, like I always match my numbers during the summer and all that stuff and I’m winning in those categories. Just having that experience, I have five years under Coach Graham and the offense is in a way similar, so I think it’s more intelligence that’s going to help me and that’s a huge benefit.”

However, Kohl also began the year with the goal of finding the right playing weight to become a more effective run and pass blocker. At various points in Kohl's career, his weight dipped as low as 225 pounds and climbed as high as 260 pounds, and Kohl said he wanted to settle somewhere between 245 and 250 pounds for his final season with the program.

"You kind of just figure out what you want, I had my injury and I lost weight too and I was about 225 again, 230 at some points and I just knew I needed to be more because I was getting pushed around," Kohl said. "I would be in the right spot, and I would hold my ground, but I’m not dominating. I’m just maintaining blocks. I’m not getting push. There’s big guys, they have to make plays to where they get another big guy on the big guy instead of just using me but if I can gain weight and help and they don’t have to do that to get the job done, then I’m going to do that.

At the start of the season, the importance of Kohl's blocking abilities almost immediately outweighed his pass-catching skills, as the Sun Devils' senior tight end quickly learned Coyle's program records were out of reach, as long as he was playing in Lindsey's offense.

While Norvell also operated an up-tempo, spread scheme during his time with the program, Lindsey brought an Air Raid flavor to the Sun Devils' offensive playbook, and that flavor deemphasized the ingredients the tight ends brought to the passing game.

With Kohl, sophomore JayJay Wilson and junior Raymond Epps, Lindsey had three players on the offense seemingly capable of stretching the defense in a different manner than a third or fourth true receiver would, but the responsibilities of the Sun Devils' H-backs and tight ends changed when Lindsey took control of the team's offense.

By the end of Lindsey's first season with the program, ASU's two starting tight ends, Kohl and Wilson, combined to catch just 11 passes for 174 yards. The dwindling offensive statistics and the increased responsibilities for the Sun Devils' tight ends in the run game highlight the offensive makeover ASU underwent under Lindsey's direction, and should foreshadow the way ASU builds the position group in the future. 

What we learned

Much like the 2016 offseason served as a transition of power at the top of ASU's offense, the 2016 season slowly but surely provided the Sun Devils with a transition of power at the tight end position.

Kohl, a three-year starter, began the season as an incumbent on an offense lacking proven commodities, but finished the year passing the torch to Wilson, who began to overtake Kohl in the season's final month.

The differences in Kohl and Wilson's respective skill sets highlights the differences in Norvell and Lindsey's offensive approach, and also shines a light on the direction of ASU's offense moving forward. 

While Kohl felt his sophomore playing weight that hovered close to 260 pounds was too heavy to help him become a productive member of ASU's passing game, Wilson rose to the top of the depth chart thanks to his effectiveness playing at the same weight.

At 6-foot-2 and 259 pounds, Wilson possesses an NFL-body type at tight end and boasts an elite combination of size, strength and speed that makes him one of ASU's most enticing pro prospects in the years to come. His ability to anchor at the line of scrimmage and block from an in-line alignment is a major bonus in Lindsey's offense, which helps demonstrate why tight ends won't play as critical of a role in the passing game in the years to come under Lindsey.

Based on ASU's offensive output and schematic approach this season, the Sun Devils may consider recruiting fewer tight ends and more receivers in the next few recruiting cycles, because of the prevalence of 11-personnel sets in Lindsey's scheme. 

Departing personnel

Kody Kohl: A three-year starter at tight end for the Sun Devils, Kohl finished his ASU career with a seven-catch, 93-yard season that fell short of his own expectations. A local product out of Mesquite High in Gilbert, Kohl was the first member of the Class of 2012 to verbally commit to ASU and was a key member of Graham's first signing class with the program. After redshirting as a freshman and playing on the scout team for the better part of two seasons, Kohl took over for Coyle as ASU's starting tight end in 2013. Kohl recorded 16 catches for 167 yards and four touchdowns in his sophomore campaign, and backed that up with the best season of his career in a 32-catch, 368-yard season in 2015. Though the transition to Lindsey's offense hurt Kohl's offensive production, he remained an important part of ASU's offense as a senior by providing a presence as a veteran blocker who aided an inexperienced offensive line. 

Returning personnel

Jay Jay Wilson: One of the most physically advanced tight ends to come through the ASU program in recent history, Wilson is a dynamic offensive talent who practiced at inside linebacker for portions of his freshman season. By the end of the 2016 season, Wilson had assumed the starting tight end role ahead of Kohl, and finished the season with four receptions, three of which were touchdowns, for 81 yards. With an impressive skill set, Wilson likely could have pushed past Kohl earlier in his career, but discipline has been an issue for the Valencia, California product. The sophomore did not travel with the team to Colorado in October due to a suspension, and missed time at the beginning of fall camp because of an academics-related issue. As a result, Wilson frequently practiced behind Epps with the third team offense in tempo periods open to the media this year, and will need to demonstrate more consistency to ASU's coaches if he wants to hold on to the larger role he has proven --at least on the field --that he can command.

Raymond Epps: A junior college transfer who came to ASU in 2015 with three years of eligibility remaining, Epps has seen the majority of his playing time over the last two seasons in 12-personnel sets. After recording four catches (three vs. Cal) for 52 yards and one touchdown in his first season with the program, Epps caught just one pass this season as his repetitions were limited when Wilson began to climb the depth chart. At 6-foot-4 and 247 pounds, Epps can provide depth both as an H-back and as an inline tight end, but he needs to improve on his fundamental approach at the point of attack on blocks if he's going to make a bigger difference in his final season next year.

Tommy Hudson: A member of ASU's 2015 recruiting class, ASU signed the 6-foot-5, 255-pound tight end as an inline prospect who could provide additional depth at the line of scrimmage. At 6-foot-5 and 254 pounds, Hudson boasts the largest frame of any returning tight end for ASU, but with the Sun Devils moving away from incorporating multiple tight end sets into their scheme, Hudson could wind up on defense after practicing for parts of the second half of the season as an edge rusher. 

Grant Martinez: A local product out of Notre Dame Prep in Scottsdale, Martinez has missed each of the last two seasons with season-ending injuries. Martinez played in six games during his redshirt freshman season in 2014, but the former three-star prospect has yet to see the field since then. Because Martinez has missed two seasons due to injury, it's possible he could receive a medical hardship waiver and earn a sixth year of eligibility down the road, but with Martinez's inability to stay healthy, his future is uncertain.

Jared Bubak: One of a handful of ASU's Class of 2016 recruits who played quarterback in high school, Bubak came to ASU as a three-star prospect out of Lincoln Christian High in Nebraska. Bubak was a mid-year enrollee who participated in spring practices for ASU this year, but still redshirted in 2016. With local product Jared Poplawski verbally committed for the 2017 recruiting cycle, ASU already appears to be in a good position depth-wise for the future at the tight end position. 


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