Ideal scholarship roster number: 4-5
Potential returning number: (Koron Crump, Alani (A.J.) Latu
Likely returning number: 2
Tyler Johnson, 6-foot-4, 245 pounds, is ranked by Scout as the No. 11 tight end prospect in the country. His preference though, is to play on defense in college, and the Sun Devils are taking him as a Devil backer.
As a senior for Highland (3-7), Johnson was limited due to injuries and only played in a handful of games. His productivity reflects that, as Johnson had four sacks and five catches for 172 yards and two touchdowns. As a junior, Johnson's numbers were better when he mostly played on offense. He had 20 catches for 462 yards and five touchdowns. For his size, Johnson is a very good athlete. A reflection of that is how he also returned kicks for Highland.
Johnson has terrific movement skills and overall fluidity on the football field, for a young man of his size. He's quite simply a natural football player and one who as a result, is able to play all over the field. He never looks out of place, whether that's at running back -- where few 6-foot-4, 245 pounders can not look out of place -- or tight end or wide receiver -- moving well in space at that size is not easy -- or with his hand down on defense on the edge, or as an outside linebacker.
A lot of what Johnson has as his best attributes are just natural ability and instinct. He's pretty raw and undeveloped as a football player, but yet also looks very capable in whatever role he's put into. His father played at Michigan State and it's clear that his genetic gifts are very good. There simply aren't a lot of jumbo athletes with this size to athleticism ratio that ASU has a chance to corral in any given class.
The best current ASU roster comparison for Johnson is JayJay Wilson. Athletically, Johnson and Wilson are very similar with Johnson being an inch or so taller. Both players had background/character or other concerns that kept other schools from recruiting them more actively. Wilson has had disciplinary issues on and off throughout his career, including at ASU. Johnson's high school career hasn't been without controversy at Highland.
Both of these guys played offense and defense extensively in high school. Both played running back and lined up at receiver and tight end also. Both played a linebacker position on defense. Wilson played a little further from the line of scrimmage, often.
The biggest difference between Johnson and Wilson is that Wilson didn't want to play defense in college, and Johnson wants to play defense. There is a mentality difference in that respect. Johnson views himself as a rush end while Wilson wanted to be a tight end and was frustrated when ASU looked at him on defense as a true freshman.
Another potential difference between the two is that Wilson, by all accounts, loves football. It's his favorite thing to do. There are some around Johnson, including at Highland High, who have told us they feel like Johnson may not be passionate about football. There is a perception among these people that he plays because he's good at it, his dad played, it brings him attention, among other reasons.
We don't know for if that's true or not, as it's hard to know exactly what makes a person tick. We're just pointing out there are potential red flags here because people who know him well are concerned about his willingness and ability to stay on track. Also, injuries aside, Wilson was more statistically productive than Johnson through his career, which is a possible indication of this.
There is a big boom or bust component to Johnson, just as there is/was with Wilson. Wilson is a guy who could have not made it at ASU, and still isn't a sure thing. He has to constantly be worked with to keep his focus where it needs to be. But his ceiling is very high and he could be among the best prospects on the roster in 2017 and beyond.
In talking with Wilson a lot during his commitment, he was a guy who seemed pretty happy, generally speaking. At ASU, he's smiling a lot and in good spirits most of the time. When we've spoken with Johnson, he's been a lot more dour, and very skeptical of people. Perhaps his experiences have created that outlook, but it's one that could present challenges into the future. If he feels good about the culture around him, it will go a long way to helping Johnson overcome that, particularly if he's flourishing.
So there are similarities and also stark differences between Wilson and Johnson. It's perfectly understandable that ASU would take Johnson, but whether it works our or not seems to be a coin flip. It could pay off if it does. He's a great natural athlete. Another local player also made a lot of sense in this respect, Kisima Jagne, but he washed out as a Sun Devil for reasons other than talent.
What ASU's done that is very good address its depth issues at Devil backer projecting to 2017. This is a position ASU's really struggled at with talent acquisition and roster stability over the last few years. Currently there are just two players returning at the position who played last year at Devil backer, seniors Koron Crump and A.J. Latu. They should have more flexibility on base and passing downs next year with Crump and Doug Subtyl potentially able to play on the field together in several different configurations.
The Sun Devils really focused on the position in 2017 recruiting and now there's no fewer than four players on their commitment list with a chance to play the role in the future: Johnson, Subtyl, and local signee Kyle Soelle. That will give a great chance at having an immediate impact player (Subtyl) as well as longer developmental prospects permeating the roster.