Ideal scholarship roster number: 5-6
Likely returning number: 3-4
2017 signees: 1 Mark Walton
Remaining ideal number: 0-1
When it became clear that Saguaro high school tight end and longtime Arizona State commit Jared Poplawski was likely to sign with Colorado instead of ASU, the Sun Devils took quick action to replace him in their 2017 signing class.
Poplawski, who had been committed to ASU since last June, set up a visit with Colorado the weekend before signing day. He did that in large part due to the departures of ASU offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey and tight ends coach Del Alexander. On the same weekend the Sun Devils decided to trip Mark Walton, a tight end at Cibola High School in Yuma, Arizona.
Initially the Sun Devils were talking with Walton about a possible grayshirt opportunity because it wasn't clear exactly what Poplawski and others would do. As it became clearer that Poplawski would end up with Colorado, Walton said new ASU offensive coordinator Billy Napier informed him that the Sun Devils were prepared to enroll him this year instead of the delay that would come from a grayshirt.
Walton had been seriously considering other late scholarship offers from Florida Atlantic and Vanderbilt at the time of his decision to commit to ASU. He'd also been reportedly offered by San Diego State and South Dakota State, the latter of which actually came prior to his senior season and much earlier than other schools. Walton said the grayshirt opportunity would have made it a difficult decision between ASU and Vanderbilt, but it was an easy choice once Napier said the Sun Devils were willing to sign and enroll him for 2017. He grew up in Arizona and wanted to be able to play for the Sun Devils as a long held goal.
The reasons Walton became a late buzzworthy tight end recruit are his impressive raw tools. At about 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds, Walton has a very good frame for the position, and he runs quite well for his size. In fact, Walton is bigger than Poplawski and probably no less of an athlete in terms of his overall speed and mobility. He could reasonably be faster and looks to have a top gear that is at least comparable.
Size and especially frame length and width are key attributes when evaluating tight end prospects. It's important to have long arm span from a blocking and ball catching standpoint as it's one of the key differentiators from a physical standpoint. ASU hasn't had any standout tight ends with this type of size in recent years and generally needs to get bigger at the position if it is going to use more in-line formations.
This wasn't really a priority of Lindsey, however. He was very comfortable using an h-back as the extra blocker and had de-emphasized the position from a pass targeting standpoint. It's important to point out that even though he's smaller, Poplawski is currently a much superior blocker to Walton, and easily a more developed prospect in many respects. Whereas Poplawski was going to be closer to playing a role with the Sun Devils upon arrival, Walton will need a lot more development.
When looking at things longterm, however, it's not clear that one is a superior prospect to the other. Walton has tangible advantages, primarily his frame and length, but Poplawski wasn't especially undersized at 6-foot-3 1/2 and 220-plus pounds. The question really is how the two players will develop in the next few years. Poplawski is much further along from a technical standpoint, and is extremely well-rounded right now. Walton has no less athletic upside and probably a little bit more than Poplawski, but is much less refined as a player.
This shows up more clearly than anywhere else on the rare instances in which Walton was asked to get into a three-point stance in high school. It's something he looks wholly uncomfortable at and unprepared for, and is frankly awkward to watch. Every aspect of this will need extensive reworking and skill development, from the set up to how he releases out of the stance and the way in which he uses his feet, hands, hips, and much more.
While this doesn't look natural to Walton, he's ostensibly more of a big wide receiver in high school than an actual tight end. There just hasn't been almost any emphasis on him playing as a blocker, and it shows. How quickly he picks up the basic technique and incorporates it is going to determine whether he sees the field at ASU or not. For some guys, it takes years. For other players it happens a lot quicker. Importantly, though, it doesn't look that natural for Walton. That's a bit unexpected because of how well he moves in space.
Walton had 39 catches for 690 yards and 10 touchdowns as a senior. The competitor is quite poor that he goes up against on a regular basis at Cibola, and Walton typically looks like a man among boys. Physically, he is. But there's no denying Walton has good ball skills for his size and tends to make plays when targeted, even in traffic. He makes contested catches, even when he has to contort his body.
So, Walton runs very well for his size and is a good receiver of the football. He's going to need a lot of work -- probably multiple years -- on developing a skill set as a blocker, particularly when playing attached at the line of scrimmage. He's also going to have to gain another 15-20 pounds on his frame in the next year or two. If by some chance he ends up improving significantly at/near the line of scrimmage, he has a chance to be a surprise for the Sun Devils down the road a couple years.
Walton will have to stay focused on developing during that time, and be receptive to understanding that it's a prerequisite to his ability to see the field regularly. This is a tight end prospect with a pretty good ceiling, but is far from it and also has a low floor. His ultimate performance at ASU is largely unpredictable but it's probably worth the staff taking a shot on him given the situation it found itself in late in the recruiting cycle.