TEMPE, Ariz. -- Not all spreads are created equal.
For two years, Arizona State operated a pass-happy spread attack under offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone. In that scheme, the tight end was virtually a non-factor, as the position hauled in just eight passes over those two seasons.
For a program that has featured the likes of Todd Heap and Zach Miller, it was a sad state of affairs.
Last year, new coordinator Mike Norvell installed his new run-first spread offense, and in the process, resurrected the legacy of “Tight End U”.
Chris Coyle flourished in Norvell’s version of the tight end, known as the 3-back. Coyle was utilized in a variety of ways, and subsequently set a new ASU single-season record for receptions by a tight end with 57.
That success, and the unique nature of Norvell’s interpretation of the position, paid major dividends on the recruiting trail for ASU this spring.
The Sun Devils were able to sign De’Marieya Nelson, a junior college transfer from San Joaquin Delta College. High on the list of factors that brought him to Tempe was ASU’s use of the 3-back.
“As for my position, this was the only school that had it installed into the offense,” said Nelson.
At San Joaquin, Nelson was used in a variety of ways.
Last season, he caught 26 passes for 218 yards and a pair of touchdowns, and he led the team with 557 yards rushing with another eight scores. Nelson was lined up all over the field, including at a traditional tight end spot on the line, split wide at receiver, and in the backfield both as a running back and as a Wildcat quarterback.
While at San Joaquin, Nelson modeled his versatile game after a former Tulsa star with whom he now shares a common bond.
“At my junior college, I learned by watching a guy named Charles Clay,” said Nelson. “I watched a lot of his film, and that’s how I learned a lot of what I do. At the time Charles Cay was at Tulsa, Coach Norvell was there. When I found that out, I knew I was in the right spot (at ASU).”
With so many responsibilities in the ASU offense, Nelson believes the 3-back is the second-most difficult position to master. It’s a challenge that he is more than willing to accept.
“To me, it’s one of the hardest positions to learn other than being a quarterback,” Nelson said. “You have to learn more than any other skill position on the field. You have to learn the tight end standpoint, the running back standpoint, to the receiver’s standpoint. You have to learn the run blocking game. It’s a great position. I’m glad that I picked this position up.”
Despite the complexity, it’s the speed of the Sun Devil offense that Nelson believes is the biggest difference and most immediate challenge that he will face.
“Right now, it’s the tempo of the offense,” said Nelson. “At my junior college, we ran the no huddle, but it’s a big difference here. It’s getting used to the environment and the way things work”
On the field, the 6-foot-3, 230-pound Nelson figures to be a potent and malleable weapon for the Sun Devils.
"De'Marieya is tailor made for our three back position," said head coach Todd Graham. "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."
ESPN's recruiting analysts, who gave Nelson a three-star rating, praised his ability to do a number of things very well on the field.
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.
Along with those position-specific talents, Nelson believes he brings the one thing most crucial to success: Effort.
“I’m a physical player. I play to the whistle,” Nelson said. “I love to block as much as I love to run or catch the ball. I’m a player that gets yards after contact. You can put me anywhere on the field, and I’m going to give you the same effort and same skill.”
That relentless work ethic was forged during Nelson’s time at the junior college level, where he never lost sight of making it to the college’s game’s top level.
“It made me more grateful for things,” said Nelson of his time in the junior college ranks. “It prepared me because I know how to deal with certain things. I haven’t played around this much talent. I can’t take anything for granted. I can’t take any plays off, because I already went through the hard road.”
It also has given him a sincere appreciation about being a Sun Devil.
“It means everything. I’m truly blessed to be here,” said Nelson. “I’m not taking any of it for granted. Every day, every workout is a blessing for me. I wouldn’t change it for anything in the world.”
Although his time in Tempe has been short, the difference in competition stood out immediately to Nelson.
“The talent. The speed. Everybody here is good at something,” said Nelson. “In junior college, you still have people trying to get up to speed. You have guys who are not really sure what they want to do. But everybody here wants it and wants to go further in football and in life. No one here is wasting time. Everyone here is grinding to get better.”
For many players making the jump up from junior college, the odds can seem daunting. But Nelson has a major asset in making the transition into Pac-12 football in the form of his record-setting position mate.
“Chris Coyle has been a great help for me. He’s been making sure that I know the things I need to know. He teaches me. It’s great having a guy like Coyle to help me.”
Nelson, who will wear No. 12 for ASU, and the rest of the Sun Devils are just a few weeks away from opening up fall camp. With the presence of Coyle and his own valuable skillset, Nelson’s role in the offense remains to be seen, but what the coaching staff and fans can expect from him this year is already certain.
“I’m giving 100 percent effort. I’m going to do whatever it takes to help the team go to the national championship.”