Preparedness/Potential Grade Key
5: All-American level performer
4: First/second team all-league level performer
3: Mid-level Pac-12 performer
2: Fringe Pac-12 performer
1: Non-Pac-12 level performer
Editor's note: Players are ranked in terms of overall current preparedness and not based on potential.
1. Jay Jay Wilson (junior) --Perhaps no ASU player stands to benefit more from the transition from Lindsey to new offensive coordinator Billy Napier than Wilson, a player capable of becoming a full-service tight end who boasts the type of athleticism the Sun Devils haven't had at the position in recent years.
When Wilson arrived at ASU, there were questions about which side of the ball he would ultimately end up on, because he has the size, speed, tenacity and natural instincts to play linebacker. However, Wilson ended up on offense, where ASU could have made more use of him as a sophomore if the Sun Devils were more inclined to take advantage of tight end help. Instead, Wilson's role was minimized last season, making the 2017 campaign a key landmark in his development.
There's no question Wilson has all of the raw potential to become one of the Pac-12's best tight ends. His skill set is thorough and broad, as he's fluid enough to explode out of a three-point stance and run the full range of routes expected of tight ends, while also being powerful enough to set the edge and punish defensive ends and outside linebackers as a blocker in the run game.
To this point in his career, Wilson has developed a reputation as a vicious blocker and a player capable of wiping out an opponent in front of him when he's fundamentally sound and using his lower body to develop leverage at the point of attack. Still, Wilson has yet to demonstrate his power and tenacity in a consistent fashion, which forced ASU to keep Kohl, a far less talented athlete, ahead of him on the depth chart last season.
As a receiver, ASU can take advantage of Wilson in naked routes and as a shield player, or on leaks when the Sun Devils use max protection looks. Wilson has the ability to create matchup nightmares for defenses when he's aligned against linebackers, so finding situations to creatively take advantage of his athleticism as a route runner will be key for Napier. Whether Wilson aligns as an in-line player, as a three-back or as a receiver split wide, he can help draw the attention of opposing defenses and free up opportunities for himself and other players in the passing game.
For Wilson to have an All-Pac-12-caliber season for the Sun Devils, he'll need to become a more well-rounded player who demonstrates a commitment to his fitness by improving his flexibility, getting leaner and learning how to take advantage of his athleticism. Wilson enjoyed a better first half of the spring for ASU than the second half, and that's likely because practice isn't the type of environment that's going to sustain Wilson's interest. He's a naturally competitive player who yearns for in-game opportunities, but he won't be able to make the most of the chances he gets until he proves he can develop better practice habits. Preparedness grade: 3 / Potential grade: 4
2. Thomas Hudson (sophomore) --This is an important season for Hudson. He's had two years to get up to speed in terms of learning how to play the position competitively in the Pac-12, but been forced to learn three difference offenses at this point in his development. Fortunately for him, the latest iteration of the ASU offense is the one that's best suited for him, and capable of providing him the biggest playing opportunity.
It's also a good sign for Hudson that he was complimented by ASU coaches for how he developed during the spring practice slate. As the Sun Devils' biggest tight end he has a lot of value in this scheme if he can prove to be an effective blocker at the point of attack. Coordinator Billy Napier comes from an offense and a league that has a strong emphasis on using big-bodied multi-purpose tight ends and having the ability to play with two of them on the field at the same time.
While fellow tight end Jay Jay Wilson is a more athletically dynamic player at the position, and as a result will likely suck up a majority of the passing targets, there's ample opportunity for Hudson to carve out a role. What Hudson has to do initially is be reliable in max protection and functional with his great size as a blocker in the run game, whether that's sealing and providing the edge or down blocking, or expanding and sustaining against an end or linebacker in outside and stretch zone plays that ASU will use frequently.
Hudson has decent mobility as a blocker for his size, but should still be able to substantially improve his techniques as a blocker and with his initial release into routes. A lot of it is repetitive habits with his footwork immediately post-snap, and how that sets up the rest of the play. He's also working to access his core strength better as a blocker by having better body posture and leverage as he engages.
As a receiving option, Hudson looks fine moving in space for being a big-bodied player, and has good hands for the position. His whole key to success is how he releases from the line of scrimmage and enters his route. When he does a good job in that regard, it puts him in position to be a short to intermediate type receiving option. This offense provides more opportunities to the position from a route running standpoint and Hudson flourished with those opportunities in high school, and proved to be difficult to bring down after the catch. Preparedness grade: 2.5 / Potential grade: 3.5
3. Jared Bubak (redshirt freshman) --A product of Lincoln, Nebraska, Bubak played quarterback in high school before beginning to make the transition to tight end immediately following his senior season. He gained 20 pounds in a matter of months, but then had to adjust not only to a body that had substantially changed, but also to a different position.
Bubak did play as a H-back type player as a sophomore, but was much smaller and used in a different way than he is going to be playing tight end at ASU. He was an early Nebraska commit, and his father worked at the school's athletic department. But Bubak re-opened his recruitment and settled on ASU, even though he was a Top-3 recruit in his home state as a senior.
Physically, Bubak has some reasonable tools to work with. He arrived at ASU bigger than most of the players at the position who came before him in the Todd Graham era, and has subsequently streamlined his physique, leaning out further and looking very much the part of a college tight end at 240-plus pounds and 6-foot-4.
Bubak also may have a better top-end gear than any of ASU's recent 3-backs. His 40-yard dash isn't great but Bubak clocked 11.59 seconds in the 100 meters in high school -- albeit at a much lower weight -- which is good for a football player of his size. On film he often outran much smaller high school players and moved well in the open field, with relatively light feet for the position.
Though he isn't especially sudden athletically, Bubak gears up well and has a higher end than a lot of college level H-back types, so his range as a receiver is better than many, including what we've seen at ASU the last few years. He doesn't seem to really fight the ball though as a receiver and has good in-route physical composure and tends to try to catch the ball properly and not let it get into him.
Playing at and near the line of scrimmage with his hand in the ground is where the adjustment is most significant, of course. Even though he's already made a lot of progress in this regard, he's still quite early in his development with the techniques required to be an effective blocker in all facets: hands, feet, posture, and alignment. He's also working on how to release off the line of scrimmage as smoothly as possible to get into his routes. This is a multi-year development process but one that's going reasonably well early in his career. Preparedness grade: 2 / Potential grade: 3.5
4. Christian Hill (senior) --One of the most physically imposing players on ASU's roster, Hill came to the Sun Devils after suffering an injury during his sophomore season at Glendale Community College that stunted his development. While an injury isn't necessarily impossible for junior college players to overcome, Hill was already behind from a developmental standpoint because immediately after high school, Hill served in the Air Force.
The gap from high school football to college football created by Hill's service coupled with Hill's injury during his sophomore season left him with a raw skill set by the time his first season with ASU began. Even though Hill has the physical traits needed to play defensive line in the Pac-12, he didn't possess the type of advanced technique and understanding of fundamentals needed to make an immediate impact.
Because Hill had three years to play two, ASU was left with a decision to make regarding whether to use him in 2016. The Sun Devils could have elected to redshirt Hill if they believed a year of training and skill development would lead to significant improvement, but instead ASU chose to play Hill and secure any possible production he could provide right away.
The result of burning Hill's redshirt is that he'll likely never become more than a sub-package player on either side of the ball, but it will allow ASU to free up his scholarship one year sooner.
Last season, Hill practiced almost exclusively with the defensive line during skill development periods, but earned his most extensive opportunities as a fullback in ASU's "Sparky" package. With the departure of ASU offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey this offseason, Hill headed back to defense at the start of the spring, but was quickly pulled over to the offensive side of the ball by Lindsey's replacement, Billy Napier.
For the better part of the spring, Hill practiced with the tight ends, and that appears to be the position he'll stick at permanently in 2017.
Though Hill won't provide ASU with any value as a route runner or as a pass-catcher, the Sun Devils can make use of Hill in sub-package groupings and in short-yardage and goal line situations.
Hill has a wide frame and a gigantic upper body that should allow him to create leverage against defensive ends and outside linebackers at the line of scrimmage, and if he can play with a low center of gravity, Hill should provide ASU with some sort of value as an in-line blocker. Though Hill won't be as technically advanced as sophomore tight end Thomas Hudson, he's another big-bodied blocker who can help ASU set and own the edge in the run game.
Hill's success rate in converting blocks as a fullback was relatively strong last season, but when he lined up in the backfield, all he needed to do was essentially stay in front of his man and prevent a defender from having a clean path to the ball carrier. If Hill is going to become a more serviceable tight end, he'll need to learn the nuances of blocking, understand how to use his hands to his advantage, and fire off the line of scrimmage with more explosiveness.
Though Hill won't have enough time to become a more polished product, there's still an opportunity for him to provide ASU's offense with a jolt in certain situations. Preparedness grade: 1.5 / Potential grade: 2.5