Success at the tight end position was an integral part of Arizona State’s offense in the early years of Todd Graham.
Since then, the decline has been clear.
“The tight ends, in our system, need to be a big part,” Graham said. “Obviously in our first few years we had guys catching over 60 balls here. Tight ends are a very intricate part of our philosophy. It dropped off last year.”
In Graham’s first year with the Sun Devils in 2012, Chris Coyle led the team in receiving with 57 catches for 696 yards and five touchdowns. Coyle set the single-season school record in receptions by a tight end with one more than Zach Miller’s 2004 season as true freshman. In 2013, Coyle had 29 receptions for 423 yards and four touchdowns.
“We’re going to get back,” Graham said. “That’s what I said. Our first three seasons here ... the tight end and the history of our offense goes all the way back to ‘07 and Charles Clay who is an All-Pro in the NFL at tight end. (But) Chris Coyle and Kody Kohl, very different deal. Chris Coyle had 60 catches, but from the same standpoint from a blocking standpoint, we will be an 11 personnel team.”
After the departure of Coyle due to graduation following the 2013 season, Kody Kohl became the leader of the group and led the tight ends with 16 catches for 167 yards and four touchdowns in 2014.
The following year, Kohl had 32 catches for 368 yards and four touchdowns in 2015. Last season, though, under first-year offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey, Kohl had a meager seven catches for 93 yards and two touchdowns.
“The tight end’s role has always been a big role in our system and we kind of fell off last year in how we utilized that,” Graham said. “That’s a big part in what we are doing. You can see the resurgence from day one of multiple tight ends. Broad blocking surfaces and those guys play a big, big role."
This season, ASU junior tight end Jay Jay Wilson is the leader of the group, followed by ASU redshirt sophomore Tommy Hudson and redshirt freshman Jared Bubak. Last year, Wilson only had four catches for 81 yards and three touchdowns. All three touchdowns were in the red zone with Wilson releasing out of a three-point stance.
Raymond Epps, now a graduate transfer at SMU, only had one catch for 13 yards and a touchdown.
"I really like our utilization in the offense,” Hudson said. “We feel like more of a key. It just seems like everything is working off each other, everything is together. When the tight ends are doing good, that means the wide receiver is going to be open, when the wide receivers are doing good, the tight ends are going to be open."
Under Lindsey, the routes ASU’s tight ends were running were limited and tight ends weren’t being used in a true passing capacity like in years past.
But the addition of offensive coordinator Billy Napier after the departure of Lindsey for Auburn looks to bring the position of tight end back into the spotlight once again.
"I think it's really good for the group because last year we kind of got overlooked with some of the quick game things,” Hudson said. “Being able to put our hand back down on the line and just get after it is going to be good for the tight end, good for the team."
At ASU, Napier is bringing elements of Alabama and Clemson’s offenses, in addition to flares from his other coaching stops. Clemson tinkered with its offense when Napier served as the program's offensive coordinator, but no matter what it did, it utilized running backs and tight end in the passing game and blocking.
“That position in particular in our system is critical,” Napier said about the tight ends.
ASU’s offense under Napier looks to have more 12 personnel sets, more under center plays with tight ends in max protection, and more opportunities for tight ends in the passing game.
"This year we've got a lot more naked (routes),” Bubak said. “If you watched Alabama last year, (tight end) O.J. Howard was a monster. He got a bunch of catches. A lot more nakeds, flat routes, stuff like that. That's what I was looking forward to last year but obviously it didn't happen. But coach Napier's offense is going to be a lot better for tight ends, so I'm excited. There's even going to be some three tight end sets.
"When we are doing install, actually today we were watching a lot of O.J. Howard, the naked, flat route stuff he was doing. He's a freak."
Wilson is excited for the opportunity to produce more on the field after being used sparingly last season. Napier said Wilson is exactly the type of player ASU needs in this system.
“That guy is kind of a jack of all trades, kind of has to be savvy football player, has really got to have an understanding of the running game and the passing game and also protections," Napier said. "Jay Jay Wilson is an ideal person to work with in terms of his skill set. Jay Jay Wilson is like a lot of young guys in football today. He’s a guy that has ability but that won’t be the reason that he doesn't have success. His ability will come as the result of consistency. Being the student of the game, has really become a technician and playing with fundamentals, techniques and having the self-discipline off the field.”
Wilson said there are a lot of questions in spring ball since ASU is on its third offensive coordinator in three seasons, but the Sun Devils are quickly learning. Wilson said the tight ends are learning "every receiving position" since they will line up both to the outside and inside.
“I feel like any one of our tight ends can be successful in any program, any playbook or scheme,” Wilson said. “This one (under Napier) helps us and gives us more opportunities to make big plays to be more a part of not only the run game, but the passing game. I feel like it’s going to be more fun for us.”
Wilson said since he stepped on campus as a freshman he is mentally more mature and that has been a key factor in his development. He said not being mentally strong is what held him back.
“I am way more mentally strong," Wilson said. "Little things don’t bother me anymore. I don’t worry about the things I can't control. Coming in as a freshman and highly recruited you think about stuff you can’t control, like the playing time and you think why this, why is coach doing that, and you got to focus on the main thing and that's getting better, getting faster, getting stronger.”
But Wilson didn't become mentally mature on his own. He had the help of teammates and coaches to steer him in the right direction as he wavered off course. This season, now that Wilson said he's mentally on track, he wants to continue to work hard during spring ball and "not get comfortable and never feel like I made it."
“It was a village," Wilson said. "The whole coaching staff, Graham here, my high school coach from back home, D-Rich (Demario Richard) helping me out and Kalen (Ballage). My teammates being there keeping my head straight. Letting me know that as long as I got the work done and put in the work I would get a reward. It took a village to get my head right. Even coach (DelVaughn) Alexander and coach (Chip) Long, they played a part in me being who I am today and I appreciate them.”