TEMPE, Ariz. -- After years of being marginalized on the sidelines, the tight end position at Arizona State has been resurrected over the past two seasons. Directed by offensive coordinator Mike Norvell and starring Chris Coyle, the position instantly became a dynamic weapon in the Sun Devil arsenal, wrecking havoc throughout the Pac-12.
Now Coyle is gone, taking his school receptions record and All-Pac-12 honors to the NFL. While that certainly leaves a big hole in the roster, it’s not a cause for concern for the Sun Devils due to the talented players that will be in the fold in 2014.
Topping the depth chart is versatile senior De’Marieya Nelson, and sliding into the No. 2 spot with a big role in mind will be Grant Martinez.
With a veteran depth chart ahead of him including Coyle, Nelson, and senior Darwin Rogers, Martinez redshirted in 2013. The local high school star from Notre Dame Prep had the height (6-foot-5), but needed time to work on the build and mental aspects of the game.
"The first year was definitely a process for me adjusting to the size and speed of college football,” Martinez said. We had great tight ends in Chris Coyle and Darwin Rogers, so it was good for me to step back, watch, and learn a lot. I knew it was going to be fast when I came in. It took a little time to adjust to the no-huddle offense and the speed of the defense. It took me a while, but now I’m feeling pretty confident.”
Martinez’s position coach sees an entirely different player this spring than first joined the program last summer.
“It’s changed his whole body and his whole mindset,” said ASU tight ends coach Chip Long said of the redshirt year. “He’s put on 20 to 25 pounds. He’s getting more comfortable. Grant just needs to play. It’s a lot different when you come from the outside in from that briar patch. Things are moving different and moving faster. He’s just got to get used to that. He’s just got to play, but he’s getting better and better every day. Really conscientious kid. Really tough kid. He’s going to be fine. He just needs time.”
Over the offseason Martinez worked diligently to add the bulk needed to play in the Pac-12 trenches, and thus far through spring practices, the difference is noticeable.
"It’s been my physicality,” Martinez said of his biggest improvement. “I’m able to stay in the trenches and block some defensive ends and hit linebackers. That's been my biggest adjustment.”
Beyond that added strength, the now 220-pound Martinez has also been relying on the lessons that Coyle imparted upon him.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better role model than Chris,” said Martinez. “It was the little things. Technique and footwork. He was undersized as well. He taught me to have a good base, take right jabs, and you can win at this level.”
While the improved blocking is a major plus, this is an offense that throws to the tight ends early, often, and then some. Being a trusted receiving option is a necessity, and that’s another area in which Martinez has found success this spring.
“I love this scheme. It opens up a lot of holes for us,” Martinez said. “We have to be smart at the 3-back position, but as long as you are doing it right and listening to Coach Long, you’re going to get the ball.”
Over the first three weeks of spring practice, Martinez has made several impressive receptions during the team’s 11-on-11 drills, using his big frame to shield the ball from defenders. He has also shown better speed on the field than he had a year ago.
His increasing reliability is a fact not lost on his offensive coordinator.
"We've got Grant Martinez and I think every day, he's getting better and better," Norvell said. "He provides such great length, and he's gaining weight and kind of getting used to playing with a new body."
During spring, Norvell and Long have been continuing the team’s use of two tight end packages, looking to pair the athleticism of Nelson and the size of Martinez.
“That’s what we’ve been putting during practice right now, working a little ‘ace’ and ‘thunder’,” Martinez said of two-tight end packages. “Hopefully we can get that out onto the field and dominate some Pac-12 teams.”
With Nelson entrenched as the starter, Martinez’s ultimate role in 2014 remains to be defined, but if he continues on the path he’s on, it will be a significant one.
“They are all competing right now for 3-back,” Long said. “One thing that we’ve always done a good job with is finding roles for guys, whether it’s our two-tight end set, our goal line set. If he keeps coming like he’s coming, there’s going to be a spot for him.”
Martinez hopes to do big things if and when he secures that job.
“Now I’m able to fill a spot and hopefully win a national championship.”