Sun Devils pleased with progress of tight ends

Arizona State head coach Todd Graham and offensive coordinator Billy Napier said the Sun Devils' reserve tight ends have made impressive progress this spring.

When Arizona State entered the offseason, the Sun Devils were struggling with dwindling depth at the tight end position and employing a coordinator who didn't have much interest in incorporating the position group into the offense, anyway.

But in late January, ASU experienced a sudden change, as offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey departed the program for the same title at Auburn, leaving the Sun Devils with an unexpected offensive vacancy.

Head coach Todd Graham filled the job by the end of January, but did so with a new coordinator, Billy Napier, who needed a deeper group of tight ends at his disposal to help implement his offensive scheme.

After losing multi-year starter Kody Kohl to graduation this offseason, ASU had the heir apparent to Kohl, Jay Jay Wilson prepared to step into his starting spot, but behind Wilson, the Sun Devils had plenty of question marks.

Now, more than two-thirds of the way through the spring, ASU has begun to find answers to those questions, thanks to the emergence of a handful of key reserves.

In the early part of the spring, sophomore Thomas Hudson and redshirt freshman Jared Bubak split reps behind Wilson as the Sun Devils' second-team tight end, but over the past two weeks, Hudson has emerged as the program's secondary option behind Wilson.

"Tommy has really come on," Graham said. "It was obviously learning early in the spring and he's just really come on. He's come on with his physicality and learned what he's doing. He's stuck out to me in the last couple of practices."

With the 6-foot-5, 255-pound Hudson proving his value in recent weeks, the Sun Devils now have a physically mature blocker who projects as an in-line tight end working his way up the depth chart. That's pivotal for ASU --and especially in Napier's scheme-- because the Sun Devils plan to make the tight ends a priority again after Lindsey de-emphasized the unit in 2016.

"Really Tommy (Hudson) has made progress the last couple of practices," Napier said. "And it's a product of his work. He's spending time doing extra, he's studying on his own and it's translating to the field."

And while Hudson has had to fend off Bubak to continue to steal repetitions behind Wilson and alongside him when the team uses 12-personnel sets, he's also battling with another scholarship player at the position.

Though he didn't start the spring as a tight end, senior Christian Hill has worked with the unit for the past two weeks, and Graham indicated that's where Hill will stick.

The former junior college transfer entered ASU as a defensive lineman in 2016, but earned playing time as a blocker in ASU's "Sparky" formation last season. Now, Hill is practicing all of the different elements associated with the position, and has spent time working with his hand in the dirt and aligning as a 3-back.

"Christian is just, man, you talk about a guy who is smart, disciplined, tough," Graham said. "He was in the rotation over on defense but we just wanted to look at him and see if he could be impactful as a blocker and as a tight end. He's an athletic guy. He did some of that last year for us out of the Sparky package. We put him over there and think it's well worth the investment. He's been productive for us, it's been a positive surprise."

The addition of Hill to the unit now gives ASU four scholarship tight ends to work with, which is important considering the versatile ways in which Napier has expressed interest in incorporating the tight ends into his offense. 

But even with Hill's addition, Napier said the Sun Devils are looking forward to adding depth to the unit this summer.

For much of the 2017 recruiting cycle, ASU had three-star Saguaro (Scottsdale) product Jared Poplawski committed to the program. However, Lindsey's decision to leave, the departure of tight ends coach Del Alexander and a late visit to Colorado brought about a change of heart, and Poplawski flipped his commitment to the Buffaloes.

The decision left ASU scrambling, but with Napier in the fold, the Sun Devils explored additional avenues in an attempt to bring in more tight ends. 

Two days prior to Signing Day, ASU landed a commitment from Yuma, Arizona native and two-star prospect Mark Walton, and in the weeks following Signing Day, the Sun Devils added a pledge from junior college transfer Ceejhay French-Love

"So we're making progress there, we're going to add two quality players at that position in the summer and that's an area of our team where we need to continue to improve but I'm pleased with where they're making progress right now," Napier said.

While Napier was candid in saying the tight end position was an uncertainty heading into the spring, the stability of Wilson, the progress of Hudson and Bubak and the addition of Hill to the unit have given the program's offensive coordinator more confidence moving forward.

"It's an area where we were thin in the offseason program but we've answered some of those questions in my opinion," Napier said. "With a guy like Christian Hill coming from defense, he gives us a little bit of a physical presence over there, he's practiced and played with an edge."

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