Now that all-conference honoree and two-year starter Chris Coyle has exhausted his eligibility, Arizona State is faced with replacing arguably one of the better tight ends that the school has ever had come through the program.
He was certainly one of the most productive.
Coyle finished his Sun Devil career with the school record for single-season tight end receptions with 57, a mark previously held by current NFL player Zach Miller.
Versatile senior 3-back/tight end De'Marieya Nelson, who stands at 6-foot-3, 224 pounds, is a major positive for ASU going into the offseason as well as the recent spring emergence of redshirt freshman Grant Martinez, who has shown flashes of high potential, particularly as a receiver. Redshirt freshman Kody Kohl, who has been limited throughout spring ball following shoulder surgery, is the other tight end on scholarship coaches hope can be developed into a quality option going into the future.
Though there is talent at the position, there is still considerable work to be done between now and the start of camp in August.
"I tell them that spring in my opinion was up and down," tight ends coach Chip Long said. "It was great at moments, it was bad at moments and that can't be the case. The past two years there's been a consistent group that has been this group. I'm telling them that they have to attack this off-season like never before because when fall comes, I'm going to see where (redshirt freshman) Kody (Kohl) and the freshmen are at. This is their time to shine and they have to keep getting better or they're going to get passed by."
Nelson, in his first year at ASU, saw action in all 14 games, finishing with seven receptions for 107 yards and two touchdowns. He also ran for 53 yards and two touchdowns in addition to playing on special teams and sparingly on third down situations on defense.
Now heading into his first offseason and what will be his second year at ASU, Nelson has had the chance to acclimate to the quick-paced offense the Sun Devils have had success with under head coach Todd Graham.
"Of course the tempo will always be tough," Nelson said. "But tempo is tempo and I've really been taking it in a lot better.
"I tell you what. I'm taking my conditioning, my weight training with [sports performance coach Shawn Griswold] and things like that a lot more seriously. I got in the film room a lot more so it's really slowed things down for me so I can focus more on the little things in order to perfect my craft."
In addition to Nelson, Martinez, who doesn't turn 19 until July, has seen many more reps this spring.
Being a consistent target in the passing game is something the 6-foot-4, 220-pounder said came more naturally to him than anything else at the tight end position. Thus far in spring, Martinez has shown to be a consistent target for quarterbacks to throw to, particularly over the middle of the field.
During a mid-spring Saturday scrimmage, with Nelson was out due to a sore knee, Martinez showcased his skills by leading the team with seven receptions for 83 yards and a long of 34 yards.
"I've always felt comfortable being a receiver," Martinez said. "Obviously I have a bigger body so I've always been able to go over the middle, catch the ball and take some hits consistently. It's definitely my strong point."
The other half of playing tight end effectively is being able to block and that's something Martinez knows he's going to have to continuously work at. Tuesday's practice was a strong one in that respect.
"Definitely it's my footwork," Martinez said. "[Long] stressed that big this spring. I struggle with it a little bit but as we've gone on this spring, I've really worked on it and progressed so I really have worked on it so I've been going in the right direction."
On top of becoming more technically sound in his footwork, putting on additional weight will be a point of emphasis this summer.
"There's no question," Long said. "He's got to tag the weight room like he's been doing all season and he'll do fine there. He's a hard, hard worker. It's just going to take time, keep coaching him. He loves being here and he's going to find a way to make himself a good player."
Being able to run two tight end sets is pivotal to the Sun Devil offense. Last season, the group was dynamic when it was able to put Nelson and Coyle on the field at the same time. This season, coaches will probably look to continue running the same formations and hope reap the benefits they produce, but in order to do so they'll need someone competent to pair with Nelson.
"It presents huge problems to the defense," Long said. "If you can have multiple tight ends that can do just as well in the run game as they can in the passing game and then do it fast, the defense can't substitute to that personnel. In one look we can be in one back and four [wide receivers] and then in the next we can be in two tight ends and going at it. If you want to go nickel to try to stop the pass then we're going to get in two tight ends and we're going to overload you to the boundary or the field and get rolling. It puts a lot of stress on that defense. What's exciting about the young guys I have is I'm going to be able to build them."
Welcome to the defense Ronald Lewis
Wearing No. 26 in a white defensive practice jersey for the first time, Arizona State redshirt freshman Ronald Lewis practiced at field corner instead of wide receiver on Tuesday.
"I like what I'm seeing today," Graham said. "Obviously we know what he can do at receiver, got a lot of those guys. I like what I've seen today even though he got beat two or three times or whatever, but he's physical, he's big, he's fast. I think he can help us there so we're going to look at him a little bit more there."
Lewis said he did play a little bit on defense in high school, but had a more blitzing and press role, less of the bump and run full coverage he had to work with on Tuesday.
"It was kind of blurry to me because I didn't know what was going on, so I'm just trying to get on the field the best way I can," Lewis said. "They asked me to come on defense and I went there."
Lewis said Graham was the one who approached him about the change to defense and told Lewis he would be a starting receiver on offense one day, but sees him now as "one of his great cornerbacks" and wanted him to make the switch over and give it a shot.
"I think it will fit me both ways, offense or defense," Lewis said. "I just got to find out what is my strongest and what is my weakest."
Junior defensive lineman Jaxon Hood took reps more consistently with the first team Tuesday. Hood has had his left hand wrapped and padded for all of spring ball following surgery, which has been challenging to adapt to.
Sophomore Devil backer Viliami Latu was back with the first team Tuesday after being held out due to concussion-related issues last week. Additionally, redshirt freshman Chans Cox swapped with junior Eriquel Florence with the second group.
After aggravating a bothersome knee in a Saturday scrimmage, Nelson was no longer wearing a heavy brace and appeared to be moving with less discomfort.
"He's doing good," Long said. "He's just got a little tendinitis but it's just something you've got to fight through and get better. He's doing a good job of toughing it out.
"He gets stowed up once in a while but that's just something you've got to get through. It's part of the deal, you're never going to play this game fresh. Guys who can take that are the guys who are really successful."
Senior receiver Jaelen Strong arrived at practice Tuesday dressed in the usual maroon offensive jersey after suffering last week what Graham termed a toe sprain. He was very limited for most of practice and was seen back in a green jersey on the sideline as practice was coming to a close.
Redshirt freshman Ellis Jefferson took reps with the first team at the 5-receiver slot position Tuesday after working extensively this spring behind Strong at the boundary position.