Todd Heap and Zach Miller used to terrorize Pac-12 defenses during their time as Sun Devils. Each went on to be drafted in the top two rounds of the NFL Draft once they declared and left Tempe. The pair’s efforts were enough for ESPN to rank Arizona State as the eighth best Tight End U in its Position U piece this summer.
But the tight ends have disappeared from ASU’s plans like old western towns after the industrial revolution. That might change come 2019.
In spring camp, fans gossiped, the coaching staff kept hinting at it. That there was a player on the way that’d bring back the fear from opposing coordinators.
The lionized player is freshman Nolan Matthews from Frisco, Texas.
“His length, his demeanor, how he smiled and he enjoyed the game,” said Tight Ends Coach Donnie Yantis about his first impressions of Matthews. “The first time I saw him, I was watching him practice the spring of (20)18. He was bouncing around all over the place. Looked like a tight end should look like.”
The Sun Devils’ tight ends haven’t had much production overall over the past five seasons. Former Sun Devil Kody Kohl’s 2015 season of 32 catches and 368 yards was the best output in that span.
However, Matthews and the ASU coaching staff want that to change for years to come and involve the position more.
“I think my skillset and what I can do with my athleticism can help that,” Matthews said. “We just need to show them that we can do it. Before I think it was a ‘they don’t really know,” but if me or (redshirt senior) Tommy (Hudson) or whoever go out and make plays we know we can, then they’ll have no choice.”
Head Coach Herm Edwards has been excited for Matthews’ arrival since he put pen to paper last December. Edwards knows how vital the position can be on offense and spoke about it on Early Signing Day.
“We needed to get a tight end that we felt fit our system,” he said. “That we don’t have to substitute in and out, he can stay out on the field and he can be in a two-point stance and an also be in a three-point stance, hybrid type guy. And we got that with Nolan Matthews.”
Through the course of fall practice, ASU has displayed more 12 personnel or in simpler terms, one running back and two tight ends set. Teams know the Sun Devils want to give the ball to Eno Benjamin, for good reason.
The two tight ends don’t infer it’s just an extra blocker for Benjamin. Just because a magician shows you one new trick, doesn’t mean there’s nothing else up his sleeve. The art of play action may become the base of the offense in Tempe. ASU feels as it has the tools to use these new ideas.
“When you get some bigger. longer players that can help us on the edge,” Yantis said. “That’s helped us. Nolan is a puppy, he’s got to mature, which he will. He’s learning all of the stuff a tight end does.”
The former high school wide receiver, until he made the switch to tight end his senior year at Reedy High School, admitted the inexperience with the offensive set.
“I’ve never really had 12 personnel,” Matthews said. “But that’s really cool being able to do different things and have two big bodies out there who can make plays. (We can) be really deceptive, one pass catching, one blocking, what they do in the NFL.”
The Philadelphia Eagles have showcased an offensive display the past two seasons with the 12 personnel. In that of course answer, Matthews expressed he wanted to model his game after Eagles’ star tight end Zach Ertz.
“Zach Ertz, how deceptive he is on his routes. How he can get open,” he said. “Trying to match his athleticism.”
Here’s a play from Super Bowl LII. The Eagles are lined up in 12 personnel, Ertz is at the top of the screen with fellow tight end Trey Butron as part of the Trips Right Formation at the bottom of the screen.
The running back is set in motion to run a route for a swing pass behind the trio — a play the Sun Devils have ran and want to run more of with Benjamin — to create an island for Ertz to the left. The 6-foot-5 Ertz, the same height as Matthews, earns inside control with his route on the slant and with his size the cornerback had no chance to recover in time. Easy touchdown.
Depending on the creativeness of Offensive Coordinator Rob Likens and his ability to pull out his inner Doug Pederson, the Eagles head coach, will help Matthews blossom out of his cocoon.
Every talented college player wants to see themself in the NFL. Matthews does too, although, he needs to play a snap at the college level first. And he knows that, he’s ready to do anything to help the Sun Devils win.
“I want to see myself be a huge part of the team,” Matthews said. “Contributing, blocking, catching passes, scoring, moving the ball down the field. My biggest thing is going to be learning behind Tommy (Hudson). Learning how to do stuff, how to see stuff, learning what it’s like to actually be a college football player.”
With the new wave of tight ends, Ertz, Kansas City Chiefs Travis Kelce, San Francisco 49ers George Kittle, being the top primary ball catchers for their respective teams, there’s a place for Matthews’ tools at the next level. He can reach that stage and the staff believes that.
“It depends on how he progresses and how are offense evolves,” Yantis said. “Every single day he gets better. It’s really about how he develops. How much film he watches, learns off the film and taking that stuff he learns and executes it on the field.
“He’s got a huge ceiling, when we recruited him we knew that. In the long run he’s got the potential to play on Sundays. But we got a long way before we get to that point.”