ASU Football Tight End Preview: Chris Coyle Reinvigorates The Position

USA TODAY Sports

The salvation of "Tight End U?" That's exactly what's happening in Tempe right now.

Go try to find a position in any major sport that's evolved more than tight ends have in football over the past 60 years. It's cool, I'll wait.

What's that you say? The closer in baseball?

I'm sorry, I don't see those overpaid relievers going toe-to-toe with defensive ends, A.K.A. the most intimidating athletes in professional sports, then splitting out wide the next play to take a devastating hit across the middle for a first down.

If that doesn't win the argument, it at least paints a vividly violent picture of what's now required of tight ends in modern football.

Interestingly enough, Arizona State has been a microcosm of that exact evolution since the time that Zach Miller graduated to the NFL after the 2006 season.

From 2007-2011, only once did the Sun Devils have a tight end with over 200 yards receiving in a season (Tyrice Thompson had 272 on 15 receptions in 2007). But as the coaching staff began to realize there wasn't another Miller or Todd Heap walking through the door, they began to gradually phase out the position from their offensive repertoire.

The dark age of the tight end was undoubtedly 2010-2011, when offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone used the position as a glorified decoy in his otherwise high-flying attack. During those two seasons under Mazzone, the tight end position combined to produce only eight catches for 76 yards and one touchdown (a gem of a stat first reported by our editor emeritus Brad Denny).

To put that into perspective, breakout tight end Chris Coyle had three times that many touchdowns and nearly three times that many yards in his two finest games from 2012 (Illinois and USC). It's numbers like those that will earn you a catchy moniker such as the one you'll find below.

The Salvation of "Tight End U"

Coyle is the hero Arizona State deserves and the one it needs right now. Yes, I realize that's not how the quote goes but it's the truth.

In a sense, it's rewarding to see a program with such rich tight end tradition finally have another stud like Coyle come down the pipeline. And it's exponentially more satisfying that that savior has finally arrived during a period when the team is barren of reliable pass catchers.

In 2012, Coyle led the team in both receptions (57) and receiving yards (696) despite finishing only one game with more than eight receptions or 100 yards. Considering that Coyle spent his first three years at ASU essentially stuck on special teams duty, that's not too shabby.

But with what the wide receivers have shown him so far in camp and practice, Coyle believes he might just get a little room to breathe across the middle of the field in 2013.

"Alonzo [Agwuenu] has been working real hard, Kevin Ozier catches everything that comes his way, Rick Smith has just been making plays left and right out there...," said Coyle. "Those guys opening up things on the outside and finding weaknesses will help me on the inside and vice versa."

Although Coyle dominated the tight end stats last season, he'll be the first to admit that the Sun Devils have quality options behind him on the depth chart. Now it looks like the coaching staff is going to find a way to ensure that talent actually sees the field this season.

"Last year, it was more jumbo [packages] where we might have two tight end in for short yardage or goal line situations," Coyle said. "But now, we're spreading out wide. There's some formations where there's two tight ends as slot receivers...There's another formation where we have three tight ends all inside the box so we can open up the run game."

That type of versatility is especially appealing to Coyle after defenses schemed heavily against him down the stretch. After finishing four of the final six games with less than 40 yards receiving, the graduate student welcomes any ideas that could free him up while he's on the field, even if that ultimately means a little less playing time.

"I already know there's going to be a lot of situations where they're going to use two or three tight ends on the field at once," Coyle said. "They're just going to use us in so many different ways that defenses won't be able to key in on us anymore like they did last year at our position."

But even with the possibility of some more one-on-one situations, Coyle hasn't been dreaming about the records he could break this season. Instead, the new record holder for most single season receptions by a tight end has been fine-tuning the less glamorous aspect of his position.

"I've really focused on pass-blocking and run-blocking," Coyle said. "I was able to get the job done with blocking last year but I wasn't dominating guys like I wanted to be."

In an effort to achieve that goal, Coyle channeled his inner Sweet Tea Willie this offseason and cultivated some mass. After playing at 222 pounds last season, the already massive tight end has bulked up to 240 pounds, the largest playing weight of his career. If all goes according to plan, Coyle hopes to be playing at 245 by midseason.

What many fans overlook as well is the fact that this is only Coyle's second year working with tight end coach Chip Long in this offensive scheme. His role is hardly standard either with Coyle operating primarily at the "3-back," offensive coordinator Mike Norvell's versatile variation of the tight end position.

By all accounts, the "3-back" is one of the most complex pieces of Arizona State's "high-octane" offense. And Coyle is the first to admit that he's hardly mastered the gig entering his final season.

"There's so many different aspects to the 3-back position," Coyle said. "We got to know close to as much in the playbook as the quarterback or the center."

So let me get this straight: a tight end coming off a record-breaking season still has room to grow physically and mentally? Sounds like a scary proposition for the rest of the Pac-12.

The Names To Watch

Chris Coyle - Graduate Student - 6'3", 240 pounds: Beyond his desire to become a more well-rounded player, there's a reason Coyle decided to bulk up this offseason. The man knows that head coach Todd Graham is going lean on the run game as much as possible with Marion Grice and D.J. Foster being this offense's greatest assets. Then again, the fact that Grice and Foster could be focusing more on simply being running backs could bode well for Coyle's potential target total. Despite being on the field for short spurts, Michael Eubank has shown a tendency to force feed Coyle the ball. Taylor Kelly, on the other hand, is a far more deliberate passer and is only going to take what the defense gives him. With that in mind, Coyle's production is largely going to depend on another passing threat taking some heat off the middle of the field. As ASU's second best red zone weapon behind Grice, I expect his touchdowns to rise but he's going to have a hard time matching his receptions and yardage from 2012.

Darwin Rogers - Senior - 6'4", 244 pounds: It's no secret that CTG has a man crush on Rogers yet so far, he really hasn't been given too many opportunities to shine. After his first career catch went for a touchdown in his first career ASU start against Cal, Rogers only caught two passes the rest of the way. He's turned in some impressive practices recently so it seems he'll certainly be in the rotation for two-tight-end sets. But with the gentlemen below him breaking out, it seems like Rogers has been lapped once again.

Coyle on Rogers: "He's been working his butt off in the offseason to improve his entire game. He's worked on his strength, his speed, his quickness...he's worked on his hands as well. We've sort of been pushing each other this offseason. We lifted together, we ran together. We both had year under our belts with Coach Long so we understand what he demands from us at the three-back position."

De'Marieya Nelson - Redshirt Junior - 6'3", 230 pounds: Nelson stole the show at the Camp T scrimmage, compiling two touchdowns and 84 yards on four catches. He had no problem finding openings in the defense throughout the day, proving once and for all that he didn't transfer to ASU just to ride the pine. CTG rewarded Nelson's efforts by promoting him to the first team offense in a two-tight end package this week and expect him to remain there barring a face plant.

Todd Graham on De'Marieya Nelson: "De'Marieya is a weapon...We've got a whole bunch of weapons there and he's definitely one that adds a lot of dimension to the run game as a blocker, as a runner, and as a guy throwing the football to so he's definitely going to be a guy that I consider a starter now even though Chris Coyle is the starter. De'Marieya will be a guy that will play significant time, no question about it."

Grant Martinez - Freshman - 6'5", 210 pounds: Martinez's size, athleticism and soft hands make him tailor-made for the "3-back" position. Unfortunately, with a surplus of talented tight ends in front of him, it seems like Martinez is prime redshirt material. At least that will give him a year to learn from Coyle. And the good news is that it already sounds like their relationship is flourishing.

Coyle on Martinez: "I had Grant back on his official [visit]. He's just a great guy. He's in the Barrett Honors College. Having that kind of smarts will definitely help him out because we have to intelligent out there on the field, especially with this offense...But Grant has done a great job out here. He's a hard worker [with] great hands. I think he's definitely going to help us out in the future."

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