John Stivers

John Stivers (Photo: Sun Devil Athletics)

TEMPE, AZ (3TV/CBS 5) -- He was on the job hunt, looking for something in finance. With a degree in hand, he pondered a move to New York.

But John Stivers wasn’t quite ready for that just yet. There was something else that he couldn’t shake.

I want to keep playing football.

The job hunt would have to wait.

*        *        *

Friday’s team meeting was wrapping up, but there was one thing left on Herm Edwards’ agenda. It just so happened to be one of the Arizona State head coach's favorite things he gets to do every year.

Onto the overhead projector, he slid a piece of paper.

Congratulations to JOHN STIVERS on earning a football scholarship at Arizona State University

Every year since taking over as head coach, Edwards has awarded a scholarship or two to a deserving walk-on player. Edwards has long held a soft spot for overlooked players, going back to his own experience as an undrafted free agent to start his NFL career.

“It’s a moment for players, for their families, and for the team,” Edwards said of awarding the scholarships. “I think it’s important just to show other guys who have walked on that they have an opportunity.” 

The recognition comes just weeks before Stivers opens up his second season as a Sun Devil but his sixth in college football.

Stivers grew up in Pebble Beach, Calif. and had a decorated prep career at Carmel High School. He was a two-time captain, a  MTAL Offensive Player of the Year, and a team MVP, all while setting a school record with 157 career receptions. Stivers was also an exceptional student and earned the opportunity to play college football at Harvard.

He did not appear in a game in 2016, but caught four passes over the next two seasons. Stivers played a larger role as a senior in 2019, appearing in all 10 games that year and catching nine passes 114 yards. His play and his approach earned him a share of the program’s Robert F. Kennedy Award given for desire and determination.

Although the production was not immense, Stivers did develop a diverse skillset while with the Crimson.

In recent years, Harvard has earned a reputation for putting tight ends into the NFL. Over the last two seasons, five former Crimson tight endssuch as Kyle Juszczyk and Cameron Bratehave played in the league. Head coach Tim Murphy, who also coaches the team’s tight ends, likens the desired approach to the position to that of a Navy SEAL.

You need to be able to do it all.

“Blocking, running routes, playing in the backfield, playing in-line, splitting out wide, that’s what tight ends are asked now to do in the NFL is really stretch the defense by doing a lot of things,” Stivers said. “Harvard, under Coach Murphy for the last 25 years, has really majored in developing tight ends as really versatile, tough players.”

He had one of the most valuable degrees in the world in his possession, but as the Ivy Leagues do not allow redshirting, Stivers still had the option to play another year. He explored his options, and as he hailed from the same Monterey peninsula as Edwards, a mutual connection helped start the process that landed Stivers in Tempe last year.

“Arizona State was an awesome fit in terms of football, and the school has a great sustainability program I was excited about,” Stivers said. “And talking to Coach Hill and getting involved with this offense and what they do with tight ends was really important to me and exciting. So far, I’ve 150 percent made the right decision.”

Last season, Stivers played in all four of ASU’s games, serving primarily as a blocking tight end. Making the jump up from the Ivy League in the FCS to the Pac-12 took some adjustment...but perhaps not as much as some may think.

“It’s a lot different. It’s Pac-12 football. It’s a lot more intense,” Stivers said. “But in a lot of ways, once I got playing, it was just like any other game. If I had to give a percentage, I’d say 15 percent better.”

With the option to return for another season, given the pandemic disruption, he opted to run it back for a chance at doing something special in Tempe.

“It was all about the team for me,” Stivers said. “I love football. I just wanted to be on a winning team and come back and be a part of something great. I’m really excited for this process.”

As may be expected with a Harvard grad, Stivers possesses a high football IQ. He concedes he’s not the most athletic tight end around, so he makes sure that he’s locked in on the mental aspects of the game and position. 

“Having a really a firm grasp of the offense, and not just what we’re doing, but the why, the how, it’s a point of pride,” Stivers said.

“(Stivers makes) No errors, and if the coach calls it wrong, he’ll remind the coach,” Edwards said.

That intellectual approach to the game has rubbed off on some of the team’s younger tight ends.

“Crazy experience. I swear he knows every single play,” said redshirt freshman tight end Jalin Conyers. “If you call it out, he can write it up on the board. He’s definitely one of my biggest people to go to if I have a question. I can ask him, and he knows it and explains why it needs to be that way.”

Stivers is one of the team’s most detail-oriented players. From the footwork, hand placement, eye level, releases and more, he has worked hard to ensure that in time, they all become natural. It has helped to elevate his game as well as earn trust from the coaches.

“He’s one of those guys you can just trust,” said ASU tight ends coach Juston Wood. “You know he’s going to do the right thing. He may not be the most athletically gifted, but he makes your room better. You’re watching film, and the other guys is like, ‘Look what John’s doing here. He’s doing it right.’ It helps everybody to see that.”

As he heads into his final season, Stivers and the other tight ends are adjusting to a new position coach. Juston Wood was elevated just prior to the start of fall camp to take over the group after Adam Breneman was placed on paid administrative leave in connection with the ongoing NCAA investigation. 

Changing coaches just weeks before the season begins is never ideal, but Wood is far from a new face. He arrived last year after having worked with ASU offensive coordinator Zak Hill at Boise State. Wood worked with the tight ends a year ago, and this spring, spent time working with the offensive line, which has helped the tight ends this fall with their in-line blocking. There were some bumps to smooth out initially with terminology, but Stivers feels that things are much more streamlined with the group.

“It wasn’t a huge transition in terms of having familiarity with his coaching style,” Stivers said. “We’re just embracing what we’re learning that’s new. We’re embracing the things he’s reiterating from old installs and old coaching. It’s not too different, and the things that are, we’re embracing and getting things going.”    

Hill’s offense includes heavy usage of tight ends in a variety of roles. Curtis Hodges and Conyers figure to be the primary targets in the passing game, but the scheme demands more from the group, things that don't necessarily get reflected in the box score. That's where Stivers’ Harvard background has prepared well.

“John is going to be a fit-where-needed guy,” Wood said. “He can play the in-line Y, he can play the off tight end, H-back- type position. He can play the fullback position if we need. We’re going to use heavy sets. There’s personnel groups in our short yardage and goal line packages where we have three or four tight end types on the field at the same time. He’s going to have that role and we’ll see where it goes.”

The 2021 Sun Devils are poised to make a strong run at the Pac-12 South title. They have a strong, experienced defense and a host of dynamic offensive weapons. But to reach their lofty goals, ASU will need players willing to do the dirty work and to do it well.

“There’s probably a correlation between the tight ends playing well and the offense playing well," Stivers said. "I’m just happy to be in any role, in any capacity to help the team win.”

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