SP Sports Weekly: The future of tight end and secondary positions in ASU Football

These two position groups showed significant promise for the Sun Devils in the Maroon and Gold Practice

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JEFFREY HORST:

Hello everyone, and welcome back to SP Sports Weekly, your weekly roundup of State Press sports content. I am Jeffrey Horst, the sports editor at The State Press. 

Joining us now on the show are State Press sports staff writers Leo Tochterman and Dylan Wilhelm to talk about their latest piece on ASU football's Maroon and Gold Practice and several improvements from two specific position groups. Thank you for joining the show both of you.

LEO TOCHTERMAN:

Thanks for having us.

DYLAN WILHELM: 

Yeah, thanks for having us.

JEFFREY HORST: 

Let's get started with the offense, and the position group of note on the offensive end were the tight ends. It is a position group that has been historically underutilized.

But this year, especially with a much-needed infusion of talent, the coaches on the offense, both Zak Hill and Adam Breneman, the tight ends coach, are going to really try to emphasize their usage.

So Dylan, I wanted to ask if any of the formations that they used in the practice were any different from previous years. Because you noted in your story that the offense last year really wanted to try to get more tight ends out on the field using more two tight end sets. So I was wondering what formations did they use, did they try to emphasize more tight end usage like last year, and how were they utilized in the practice?

DYLAN WILHELM: 

Throughout the majority of the field, from about the 20 to the other 20, it seemed pretty normal. You'd have tight ends lined up on either side of the tackles. Every once in a while, you'd get one lined up in the slot, but they didn't really seem to be the main target.

What stuck out to me the most was in the red zone when tight ends, specifically Jalin Conyers, specifically went out to the slot almost on every single snap. And he seemed to be the first or second read on those red zone plays, where he would be heading vertical toward the end zone. And he actually caught two touchdowns on the day. 

So the tight end use in the red zone stuck out to me the most.

JEFFREY HORST: 

About their usage in the red zone, I was wondering what type of plays they were using to get them those opportunities. Because usually when we're talking about red zone offense with ASU, we're usually seeing a lot more run-heavy type of plays, you get some play action, and if it's passing, it's either routes going horizontally or you have fade plays.

DYLAN WILHELM: 

Yeah, they actually seem to be going more vertical in the red zone, which seems kind of weird. You think they'd be more vertical throughout the rest of the field, but throughout the rest of the field is where we saw those shorter, quick-developing hitches, drags, stuff like that. But in the red zone specifically, the tight ends seemed to have almost a straight line for the end zone as if it was, "get open in the end zone, and we're gonna find you with the first or second read."

JEFFREY HORST: 

And another thing that Jayden Daniels specifically noted was how the tight ends stepped up. And you noted in your story that given the wide receiving corps' general sense of youth — I believe they only have one upperclassman out of that entire group. 

So how big is it, considering the experience that the tight end group has compared to the wide receiving group, is it for the tight ends to really step up as pass catchers this upcoming season?

DYLAN WILHELM: 

They can play a huge role not only for the offense but for Daniels specifically. In the Maroon and Gold practice, we really only saw Jalin Conyers and Case Hatch, both of whom had touchdowns in the practice. But Daniels shouted out both of them for their hard work after the practice but also, Coach Edwards noticed, you have experienced tight ends and Curtis Hodges and John Stivers, who didn't play. 

So now you have a group of three or four tight ends who are experienced in this offense who could become reliable targets for Daniels, given, as you mentioned, the kind of youth and overall inexperience as a whole of the wide receiving corps. These big reliable targets, if they're utilized more, could become favorites of Daniels.

JEFFREY HORST: 

Now moving to the defense. We highlighted in the story about the secondary and their overwhelming chock of experience compared to most teams in the Pac-12. Leo, this is what you covered.

I want to talk about a specific comment that defensive back Chase Lucas gave, and that was the secondary group has a sense of camaraderie that really hasn't been seen in previous years. So I want to ask, what does that bring that group?

LEO TOCHTERMAN: 

It's a uniquely loaded group this year for the ASU secondary, and that's for a number of reasons. 

You got Chase Lucas, who is actually going to be entering his sixth year in the program; he's going to be a captain this year. You have three other seniors in the secondary that are returning as starters, and those seniors are fellow cornerback Jack Jones, and senior safeties Evan Fields and DeAndre Pierce.

It's pretty unique to have four senior starters returning. And the reason that they kind of got lucky in that sense is just COVID-19 provided an extra year of eligibility for student-athletes, and all four of those guys took it. They could have opted for the draft, and they ended up returning to school.

It's a unique group this year because ASU recently got a ton of secondary talent that just entered the program within the last year or so. So there's kind of this old guard of ASU secondary players and a new guard. So there's not as much fighting about roles. It's more just the seniors are going to start and play, and the young guys are going to learn.

There seems to be a really good camaraderie among the group, like Lucas said, and it's a unique level of talent, and there's no reason that the secondary shouldn't be one of the best in the Pac-12 next year.

JEFFREY HORST: 

And given the secondary’s experience this year, and compare that to how the defense played last year, overall. ASU's passing defense was probably one of the worst in the Pac-12; they had the fourth-most passing yards allowed in the conference, but at the same time, they had one of the best rushing defenses in the Pac-12.

So what I want to ask is, given the experience and the talent in the secondary, how crucial is it for the secondary to really perform to their level next year, in terms of the defense's overall success?

LEO TOCHTERMAN: 

I think it's huge. I think they have the requisite talents to do what you mentioned, it's just about the consistency of it. Last year was really stop and start: They played the first game, and then they had a big break, and then just a lot of COVID stuff that just interfered with all of the rhythm of the season.

So I really think that if you get a full year, and you get some consistency in terms of who's starting, who's playing, which I think they'll have, I think you'll see those numbers on defense improve because you really do have a lot of NFL-caliber talents on the defense, both entering the program and players that have been there for a while. So I really do think that's set to improve in 2021.

JEFFREY HORST: 

And one last question that defensive backs coach Chris Hawkins talked about throughout spring practices, and that is the fact that he is so, quote, "spoiled with talent," that he can generate different packages in lineups to really play to certain schemes that other offenses bring out to the field or certain situations. I was wondering, did you see any of that in the practice at all? And do you feel like we could see a lot more varied packages from the defense this upcoming season?

LEO TOCHTERMAN: 

Yeah, in the practice last weekend, it was a lot of mixing and matching guys. So they ran with the starters in the beginning of the scrimmage, and then they started subbing in some of the younger guys.

I do think a lot of the younger guys could really see time this year if injuries pop up or just in the course of the game. One of those younger guys that we saw on Sunday was Keon Markham, who's a redshirt freshman. He kind of is an example of, just like, that depth. He had a really impressive interception to close the scrimmage. And he's just one of those guys that they're very confident in in that room. 

There's a number of other freshmen that I would not be surprised if they get decent playing time this year for the secondary. They just have a unique level of depth. It doesn't really come together like this too often for a college team, and especially not in recent years for ASU.

JEFFREY HORST: 

Thank you so much, Leo and Dylan, for taking the time to talk about your respective parts in the piece regarding ASU's Maroon and Gold practice this past Sunday.

LEO TOCHTERMAN AND DYLAN WILHELM: 

Thank you for having us.

ALEX COIL: 

Thank you all for listening to SP Sports Weekly. For more State Press content, visit statepress.com, like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter at @statepress and @statepresssport. See you all next week for the next episode of SP Sports Weekly.


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