When you pass names like Todd Heap and Zach Miller in the record books, you know you did something right.
With his 57 receptions last season, that's exactly what Arizona State's Chris Coyle did. That figure set the Sun Devil school record for single-season receptions by a tight end, a mark made impressive not only by the names that he passed, but also the recent history that his performance reversed.
Over the previous two seasons (2010 and 2011), Sun Devil tight ends—well, really just Trevor Kohl— combined for a mere eight catches and 76 yards. While then-offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone's offense was prolific, it all but eliminated the tight end position as an offensive threat. "Tight End U", as ASU had come to be known during the days of Heap and Miller, was a distant memory.
Then came the arrival of head coach Todd Graham, offensive coordinator Mike Norvell and the "3-back", their versatile version of the tight end. In just one year, Graham and Norvell resurrected "Tight End U" from the grave to record-setting heights, and with an intriguing addition in the 2013 recruiting class, that success figures to grow in the coming years.
Thriving tight ends are nothing new to Graham and Norvell.
During their four seasons at Tulsa, their 3-back position was among the most productive of any team in the country. Schematically, the 3-back lines up in several positions, whether it's a traditional tight end spot on the line, in the backfield, in the slot or often times being in motion. The position calls for top-notch versatility and athleticism, and at Tulsa, Graham and Norvell had Charles Clay, now with the Miami Dolphins, at their disposal.
Clay put up excellent numbers in both the passing and running games, and at 6-foot-3 and 245 pounds, was a capable blocker as well. Clay's performance at the 3-back spot was a major reason in Golden Hurricanes finishing in the top five nationally in total offense three times in his four seasons.
Charles Clay's Tulsa Statistics
While at Pitt, Graham and Norvell used Hubie Graham in the 3-back role. While Hubie Graham fit the mold as a traditional tight end more than the versatile 3-back spot, the Illinois-transfer still posted 28 receptions for 325 yards and three touchdowns, which was far and away his most productive season.
Give the coaching tandem a talent to work with, and they made things happen.
Then it was Coyle's turn.
Talent was never the issue with the California native. Coyle began his career as a wide receiver, which at the time was a crowded depth chart for the Sun Devils. He was a key special teams contributor in 2010 and 2011, and in Mazzone's final season, Coyle made his first offensive impact with six catches for 73 yards.
When Graham and Norvell arrived, they saw the talent and ability that the 6-foot-3, 230-pounder possessed and felt he fit the bill for the 3-back spot. They were right.
Chris Coyle's 2012 Statistics
Coyle became the go-to target to the Sun Devil passing offense, showing good hands, solid blocking and excellent run-after-the-catch ability.
Perhaps of the best part about Coyle's game? He comes back for another year in 2013.
But unlike in 2012, he may have some help.
Earlier this month on National Signing Day, ASU officially received the letter of intent from De'Marieya Nelson, a very intriguing junior college transfer who has been receiving comparisons from Clay throughout the recruitment process. While expecting a Clay-like impact is unreasonable at this juncture, his potential has Graham excited.
"De'Marieya is tailor made for our three back position," said Graham during the Signing Day press conference. "This guy can play running back. He also can play a tight end and he can also play an inside receiver. He is one of the best chasing tight ends in the country and a guy that is going to be very impactful with what we are doing."
Like Coyle, Nelson comes in at 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds. Last season at San Joaquin Delta College, Nelson hauled in 26 passes for 218 yards and two touchdowns, and he led the team with 557 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground.
Nelson's athleticism and skillset allowed him to play as a Wildcat quarterback, running back, in the slot and as a traditional tight end. Even with his large size, he is a very fluid runner with good vision, and rarely goes down on first contact due to his relentlessly driving footwork. As a receiver, he has shown to use his hands to go get the ball, rather than relying on using his body.
ESPN, who rated Nelson the No. 78 overall junior college player, gave this evaluation:
He has nice hands and consistently extends his arms and snatches the ball out of the air away from his body. He will consistently go up and high-point the ball, and with his body length presents a nice catch radius...After the catch he can be tough to bring down and will fight for yards...He is sudden and elusive given his size and can not only run through defenders, but make them miss and extend plays.
He also proved to be a willing blocker, with good drive in pushing defenders back and not quitting too early on a block. Nelson's game still has much refinement left, especially in the passing game, but his overall tools and ability should prove intriguing to fans and coaches alike (Nelson's highlight reel here).
Coyle's presence as not just the team's starter, but also one of the top tight ends in the nation, will relieve Nelson of any pressure to bear a heavy burden in his first season in the Pac-12 while concurrently giving him a top-notch mentor.
It also figures to give opposing Pac-12 defensive coordinators fits for the next two seasons.