Spring primer: Tight ends
Jay Jay Wilson: Four receptions, 81 yards, three touchdowns, 20.25 yards per reception
Grant Martinez: Sat out the 2016 season with an injury
Thomas Hudson: Did not record a reception in 2016, his redshirt freshman season
Jared Bubak: Redshirted in 2016
Spring newcomers (0)
Anticipated fall arrivals (2)
Mark Walton: Two-star signee, 6-foot-5, 220-pound prospect
Ceejhay French-Love: Post-Signing Day addition, junior college prospect with three years to play two
What to expect: When head coach Todd Graham first arrived at Arizona State, the future of the tight end position looked bright.
During Graham and offensive coordinator Mike Norvell's first season on campus, the Sun Devils' passing attack was essentially anchored by its tight end, Chris Coyle, who nabbed 57 receptions for 696 yards and five touchdowns. Coyle wasn't just a safety valve for first-year starting quarterback Taylor Kelly, he became a dynamic offensive weapon ASU relied on heavily as the season moved along.
Since Coyle's breakout season, though, the production of ASU's tight ends has declined precipitously, reaching a Graham era low in 2016 when three ASU tight ends combined for 12 receptions and fewer than 200 receiving yards.
In many ways, the low output from ASU's tight ends in 2016 was predictable, especially considering first-year offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey incorporated more Air Raid principles into the Sun Devils' offensive scheme than his predecessor, Norvell. However, even in 2016, Lindsey had a third-year starter, Kody Kohl, at his disposal, and could have taken less drastic measures to de-emphasize one of ASU's most experienced offensive assets.
After Coyle's 57-catch season in Graham's first year at the helm, Kohl's 32-reception, 368-yard effort in 2015 stands alone as the second most productive year for a tight end under Graham at ASU, which shows just how sharply the Sun Devils' tight ends dropped off the radar in the passing attack in recent seasons.
Following Lindsey's decision to reduce the tight end's role in the passing game, the Sun Devils suffered attrition at the position, as former junior college transfer Raymond Epps elected to become a graduate transfer and enroll at Southern Methodist after graduating from ASU in December.
Epps' decision came a few weeks before Lindsey bolted ASU to become the offensive coordinator at Auburn, which opened up an opportunity for Graham to find more ideological balance on the offensive side than Lindsey provided.
In Norvell's final season and in Lindsey's first season, Graham felt the program became too dependent on the pass and strayed away from a run-oriented approach. When Graham began looking for Lindsey's replacement, the Sun Devils' head coach wanted to find a coordinator with a background in an 11-personnel, spread, no-huddle system who felt just as passionately about renewing ASU's commitment to the run game as he did.
In late January, ASU hired former Alabama wide receivers' coach Billy Napier to take over for Lindsey, and within the first few weeks of Napier's tenure, the Sun Devils have already demonstrated signs that tight ends will once again become a focal point of ASU's offensive scheme.
Within days of Napier's hire, ASU secured a commitment from two-star in-state tight end Mark Walton, who the Sun Devils had been recruiting for less than a week when he offered his pledged. Then, less than a month after Signing Day, ASU announced the addition of junior college tight end Ceejhay French-Love, a 6-foot-5, 255-pound option who is expected to provide the Sun Devils with more depth at the position in 2017.
Though neither French-Love or Walton have the experience as in-line blockers to make a considerable impact in ASU's rushing attack this season, the Sun Devils' commitment to bolstering their depth at the tight end position provides an indication that Napier wants this group to be a more integral part of ASU's offense moving forward.
This spring, Napier will have his first opportunity to get a feel for the personnel he'll use this fall, as the program returns four tight ends from the 2016 team.
For the first time since the start of the 2014 season, ASU will have a new starting tight end, as junior Jay Jay Wilson is poised to take over for Kohl.
The combination of Napier and Wilson is one that has the potential to make ASU's offense much more dynamic next season, considering Wilson is the most physically imposing tight end prospect the Sun Devils have ever had under Graham. At 6-foot-2 and 260 pounds, Wilson has an NFL body type and the athletic attributes to match, but will need to focus on staying disciplined in order to reach his potential.
At various points during Wilson's career, he's found himself buried on the depth chart because of a lack of discipline, and last season, Wilson didn't travel with the team to Colorado due to a suspension. If Wilson demonstrates a greater level of maturity and grows into his vast potential, then ASU should have one of the most explosive tight end prospects in the Pac-12. If Wilson continues to struggle, though, ASU will hurt for depth at the position in 2017.
What makes Wilson such an intriguing prospect is the blend of power, flexibility and athleticism he brings to the tight end position, all of which make him a capable three-back and in-line blocker. Wilson possesses the physicality to drive defensive ends and linebackers off the ball from the line of scrimmage, but also has the fluidity to stretch the seam of the defense on routes from a three-point stance.
Even though Wilson was used sparingly in the passing game a season ago, he became a crucial red zone target for ASU and proved he was willing to compete for balls in the air. Perhaps no player will benefit more from the coaching transition on the offensive side of the ball than Wilson, which makes this spring a pivotal one in his overall development.
If Napier is serious about involving ASU's tight ends more frequently in 2017, one of the most important storylines for the Sun Devils this spring is which player emerges as the secondary option behind Wilson.
Of the four tight ends ASU will have in camp this spring, only Wilson has earned meaningful offensive snaps during his career. At this point, the second spot on the depth chart is completely up for grabs, and the Sun Devils are hoping one of their younger players seizes the opportunity.
Should the Sun Devils make a concentrated effort to use their tight ends as in-line blockers, sophomore Thomas Hudson may have the best shot at playing behind Wilson. At 6-foot-5 and 255 pounds, Hudson has the largest frame of any returning option, and is much more geared toward setting the edge and creating angles in the run game than he would be contributing as a receiving threat.
Last year, Hudson split practice time between offense and defense as he tried his hand as a pass rusher, but with ASU's current depth situation on offense, the Sun Devils likely need Hudson to remain at tight end.
Though Hudson may not possess the type of flexibility and fluid athleticism a player like Wilson has, he does have the body type to put on more muscle mass in the offseason training program and become a more physically imposing weapon at the line of scrimmage. While Hudson may not have the feel for blocking as an in-line player just yet, there's no reason Hudson can't eventually provide the Sun Devils with the type of blocking Kohl did later on in his career.
Outside of Hudson, the Sun Devils' remaining options at tight end are senior Grant Martinez and redshirt freshman Jared Bubak.
Because of Martinez's injury history, it's likely that Bubak receives a more extensive look from ASU's coaching staff this spring after the former three-star recruit out of Nebraska took a redshirt season last year.
The redshirt season was important for Bubak's development because his high school team primarily used him a quarterback during his junior and senior seasons, which can create a challenging assimilation for prospects moving on to Power Five programs.
During his freshman season, Bubak checked in at 6-foot-4 and 245 pounds, but with the hire of Napier, ASU may want Bubak to add a bit of weight in the offseason training program to make him a more competitive blocking option at the line of scrimmage. At this point in Bubak's development, he's probably a better three-back option than Hudson and a more capable receiving option, but the Sun Devils' spring practice slate will go a long way toward determining how ASU wants to use each player.
If Bubak showcases the necessary physicality to handle blocks at the line of scrimmage, perhaps ASU will move forward with Bubak ahead of Hudson on the depth chart because he's probably a more well rounded athlete overall.
The final player looking for a chance to crack the rotation at tight end this spring is Martinez, who has sat out the last two seasons with injuries and can't be counted on from a consistency standpoint. If ASU can get any sort of production out of Martinez, it would be considered a major victory for both the player and the program, but because he hasn't been healthy since 2014, it's impossible to know how he'll respond to contact, how the speed of the game will impact him, and whether or not he's still able to compete from an athletic standpoint against ASU's other options.
As ASU transitions from Lindsey to Napier, how the Sun Devils intend to deploy tight ends in their offensive attack will be one of the most intriguing philosophical shifts to monitor. But this spring, based on the performance of a largely inexperienced personnel group, Napier and the rest of ASU's offensive coaching staff will determine to what degree the Sun Devils' tight ends are capable of fulfilling the increased roles the staff hopes it can handle.