Ideal scholarship roster number: 5-6
Likely returning number: 3-4
Remaining ideal number: 0-1
A de-emphasis of the tight end position from receiving standpoint saw Arizona State quarterbacks complete just 12 passes to the position in 2016, led by Kody Kohl, who had a mere seven receptions. This, from a player who entered the season as the leading returning receiver among tight ends in the Pac-12 and had 32 catches in 2016. Kohl wasn't even targeted half as many times as the completions he totaled a year earlier.
The primarily reason for the change was offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey. Though quarterback experience and tendencies had some limited impact on the tight end targets, Lindsey's offensive approach simply utilized the position in a different way. It was a stark departure from the offense as orchestrated by previous offensive coordinator Mike Norvell, with no evidence better than the school-record 57 receptions by tight end Chris Coyle in 2012.
Whereas Norvell's offensive approached used more designed roll outs with the tight end as a prominent option, Lindsey tended to use the position more ornamentally in the passing game, other than in very limited situations -- primarily in the red zone -- in which he wanted to get the ball to then-sophomore JayJay Wilson. Typically, tight ends were blockers or quick hitch concept receivers in 2016.
This philosophy contributed to Raymond Epps' transfer to SMU for his senior season. Ironically, after Epps' decision to leave, the Sun Devils hired an offensive coordinator to replace Lindsey following his departure to Auburn who is expected to be much more tight end friendly.
Billy Napier, who cut his teeth under Nick Saban as wide receivers coach at Alabama and before that at Clemson as offensive coordinator under Dabo Swinney, is a product of offenses that utilize the position in a much more well rounded fashion. That reality has been reflected immediately and very clearly in the talent acquisition component of the team's offensive operations.
When Saguaro 2017 tight end Jared Poplawski decided to flip from ASU to Colorado in the final two weeks before National Signing Day on Feb. 1, Napier didn't stand pat at the position. Instead he moved quickly on fellow instate high school tight end Mark Walton out of Yuma Cibola. Now, with a strong assist from offensive analyst Josh Martin, the Sun Devils have added a second tight end in 2017, Ceejhay French-Love, a junior-to-be out of East Los Angeles City College.
Though he had no other scholarship offers, the Sun Devils aggressively decided that French-Love fit what they were trying to do offensively, and would help provide another scholarship option immediately at a position group that returns little in the way of experience.
This contrasts very clearly with Lindsey's view of the offensive talent, as the Sun Devils were not looking to add a second tight end throughout the recruiting cycle following the early pledge from Poplawski. They had previously received a visit from junior college tight end Mik'Quan Deane, and Deane told SunDevilSource he was prepared to join the program if given the opportunity. Instead, ASU essentially stopped recruiting Deane and others at the position as the 2016 season unfolded due to Lindsey's view of the personnel and in consideration of his offensive approach.
Napier and Martin, however, decided that especially in light of Epps' departure they wanted to secure another2017 tight end to add to the unit, which is comprised of Wilson, senior Grant Martinez, sophomore Thomas Hudson, redshirt freshman Jared Bubak. Now the Sun Devils will have six scholarship tight ends in 2017 assuming everyone returns and enrolls, and that's the scholarship target number most programs have that want to utilize the tight end in a comprehensive way offensively.
While ASU head coach Todd Graham has maintained the program's offense has always been and will remain an 11 personnel (one tight end, one running back) base scheme, that's an broad oversimplification that can easily be misinterpreted without further parsing. Norvell and Lindsey each ran spread no huddle 11 personnel base offenses, but they were marked by obvious substantive differences, tight end usage being among the more demonstrable examples.
Early indications are building that Napier will take ASU in a direction that could include an expansion of route concepts and alignments for tight ends, more shifts and motions, and increased play action passing that could provide an increase of downfield seam stretching opportunities for the position. That should really favor and play to the strengths of Wilson, a player who is far too talented to be used in such limited fashion as was the case in 2016, when he had just four catches, three of which were touchdowns.
Wilson has to be licking his chops at being turned loose in Napier's offense given his ability to impact the game as a receiver out of flexed, up-back or inline pre-snap alignments. The Sun Devils don't have anyone else at the position who has demonstrated such a capability, and that's one of the reasons for the late addition of French-Love, an older player who has a good balance of size and versatility.
At East Los Angeles City College, French-Love had 25 catches for more than 400 yards and nine touchdown receptions as a sophomore, which led to a first-team all-league designation in the CCCAA. He was primarily used as a flexed weapon in the passing game and spaced blocker, essentially a bigger Y-type receiver albeit in the form of a bigger bodied player at 6-foot-5 and 255 pounds.
Out of Long Beach Poly High as a 2015 recruit he signed with Division II Colorado-Mesa. But he was unsatisfied with the idea of playing below the Division I level and gambled that he'd elevate his profile by dropping down to the junior college level. That decision proved to work out with the ASU opportunity, though it came after signing day and was his first scholarship offer. Earlier he'd been receiving interest from several FCS programs but that was about it.
There's not a lot of film of French-Love from an inline alignment because East L.A. played an open edge spread offense, which makes the evaluation tougher to piece together and likely was a major contributor to how limited his recruitment was. Schools weren't able to get a better sense for his skill set unless they were able to get and willing to use Colorado-Mesa practice film, in which French-Love said he typically worked out of an inline position. At the time of his commitment, ASU was the only school to take a shot on French-Love, and he's projected to transfer to ASU with three years to play two seasons after finishing junior college coursework in July.
In some respects French-Love looks like an Epps replacement at the position. Epps was a receiver in high school and really was used similar to French-Love as a junior college player at Arizona Western. It wasn't until Epps arrived at ASU with three years of eligibility that he started to gain the weight and work to become a full-service player at the position. As a junior Epps was finally the type of size that French-Love possesses, but he didn't impact the position at ASU under Lindsey.
It's probably too much to expect French-Love will be a full-service player for ASU in 2017 because of how he's been utilized at the junior college level. This is a player who will likely arrive in Tempe just prior to preseason camp and will face a significant step up in terms of practice competition, from players who have already been fully immersed to playing at this level. He's not going to be more of a receiving threat than Wilson, and unlikely to be the top inline option from a blocking standpoint.
The likely positive case scenario for French-Love is to back up Wilson in 11 personnel groupings and possibly be used with the first unit when the Sun Devils go to two tight end sets. He's a linear athlete who maximizes that with good adjustment ball skills and an above average catch radius for a tight end. But he's not a player who is going to carve up open field with an ability to redirect and lose man coverage defenders.
At the Pac-12 level French-Love is a seam threat defender against zone coverage and should be able to fulfill that role out of inline and slot alignments. He feels space reasonably well and will make plays on the football. He could be used on some angled concepts working more lateral to the line of scrimmage in which his size is utilized to shield defenders when targeted.
What French-Love will yield from a blocking standpoint in the box remains to be seen. He has the length and size, and shows pretty good lower body flexibility for a tight end in how he runs, so he has a chance to play with the type of leverage and base that he'll need to demonstrate to get a more developed role. But becoming that type of player will likely take a year or more of training at this level and he'll need to be able to accomplish that on an aggressive timeline to play his way beyond a role type sub-package tight end by the time he's a senior in 2018, assuming he doesn't redshirt this year.