TEMPE, AZ (3TV/CBS 5) -- They're always there, standing as silent reminders of the glory days.
Heap. Miller. Coyle.
As soon as you walk into Arizona State's tight ends meeting room, you see their images all over the walls. They are the very best the program has ever seen at the position, the standard to which every current ASU tight end aspires.
They're also getting lonely up there.
For the better part of the last 35 years, Sun Devil tight ends have not put up big numbers, shown up on all-conference teams, or been selected in the NFL Draft.
The current Sun Devil coaching staff wants to change that. In order to elevate the position back into prominence, they'll need to find the right players to put in the right scheme.
After all, there's still some space on those walls.
* * *
When Arizona State athletic director Ray Anderson dismissed head coach Todd Graham in November of 2017, he cited was the lack of NFL players being produced by the program as one of the major reasons.
So when Herm Edwards was brought in as head coach a month later, one of his staff's first goals was improving the talent level of the roster. To fashion ASU into an NFL pipeline, the staff turned their recruiting attention to bigger, longer, and faster players that they could develop into pro players.
The first parts of that mandate have been clearly evident over their two recruiting cycles. The new Sun Devils signed in the 2018 and 2019 classes are—by and large—bigger, longer, and faster.
That definitely includes the first tight end signed by this staff.
Last spring, ASU wide receivers coach Charlie Fisher was out recruiting in Texas when he came across a prospect at Reedy High School in Frisco. He called Donnie Yantis.
"You may want to come look at this tight end," Fisher told the Sun Devils' new tight ends coach.
Yantis took note and called Chad Cole, Reedy's head coach. He also began watching film, and was sufficiently interested that he flew out to Texas to see him up close.
When he got to a Lions' practice, Yantis immediately took notice of the young tight end. Tall, strong, and athletic.
"OK, this guy looks the part," Yantis thought.
Over the course of the practice, Yantis watched him in action, running routes, catching the ball, and blocking. He also closely watched how he interacted with his teammates. Character counts.
By the end of the day, Yantis had made up his mind about Nolan Matthews.
"This is a guy we want."
* * *
Had it not been for a fateful decision about a year prior, that would have never happened.
Basketball was Nolan Matthews' first sports love. He started hooping around age five or six. A year later, he also began playing football and baseball, but basketball was still number one for him.
When Matthews got to Reedy High School, he played basketball and football for the Lions, in addition to running track. Through his sophomore season, he felt that his future was on the hardwood.
“I liked basketball because football wasn’t coming to me as naturally as basketball," said Matthews. "I was more ahead in basketball than I was in football. I wasn’t in to my body in football. I couldn’t put one foot in front of the other, really."
He was ready to focus on basketball, where his size and athleticism had made him a terrific rebounder. However, Cole and Matthews' parents didn't want him to close the door on football just yet. The four of them met and a deal was made.
"I don’t know how big I’m going to get for basketball," said Matthews of that meeting. "I could have a future in football. Just try it out, and if I don’t like it this coming spring, then I could make the decision.”
Good things come to those who wait, and during spring football practices prior to his junior year, things began to click.
“I kinda started coming into myself a little bit," Matthews said. "I started getting the hang of things. I finally saw a future in football. I finally saw what I could be if I kept working at it.”
What he and everyone else around Reedy saw was a young kid developing into a quality player.
As a junior, he was named to the all-district second team after catching 20 passes for 327 yards and five scores. He was becoming a key player on a quality team, seeing firsthand what it was like playing in a football-obsessed state.
The big lesson? Don't let the fans down.
"It’s a blessing," Matthews said of the fervor for high school football in Texas. "Football here is such a big part of the community, it’s everything. If you lose here, it’s like the world’s ending. If you win, then you’re on top of the world. It’s a big atmosphere that I don’t think you get from any other state besides Texas.”
His recruiting attention picked up after his junior year, including that visit from Yantis. Matthews and Yantis bonded over football and their strong faith. Matthews also got to know Rob Likens, ASU's offensive coordinator.
"He’s crazy," said Matthews of Likens. "As soon as you walk into a room, you feel his energy and how much he cares about football and his players."
That June, Matthews took three official recruiting visits.
Up first was ASU. He wouldn't be the only Texan on an official visit to Tempe that weekend, as Jordan Kerley, a wide receiver prospect from Austin, was also there.
Matthews then followed the trip to Tempe with visits to Iowa State and TCU in successive weeks.
For Matthews, it was all about family.
“Of all the schools I visited, no school had the family aspect like Arizona State," Matthews said. "It was like everyone was family. The direction that Coach Herm wants to take it with being a pipeline and platform to the NFL, I felt like there’s no other school in the country that’s doing that.”
* * *
When Chris Coyle emerged as one of the best tight ends in the Pac-12 in 2012, it wasn't just a revelation. It was an aberration.
Coyle broke school tight end records with 57 receptions and 696 yards. It was the first time in four seasons that an ASU tight end had caught more than seven passes in a season.
The next season, even though his production dipped to 29 catches for 424 yards, Coyle was named first-team All-Pac-12, becoming the first Sun Devil tight end to earn that honor since Zach Miller in 2006.
Over the next two seasons, the tight end—or 3-back, as it was called in offensive coordinator Mike Norvell's scheme—remained a piece of the offense, although it never reached the heights it did with Coyle.
But when Norvell left at the end of the 2015 season, so to did the days of the tight end being a major threat in ASU's attack.
In the three years since his departure, Sun Devil tight ends have combined for 31 receptions and 241 yards.
Thirty one catches over three years.
Of course, ASU tight ends have contributed in other ways, with many proving to be capable blockers that have helped pave the way for the ground game. But the current coaching wants their tight ends to be multi-dimensional threats, the type that scare defenses and make a name for themselves.
The type that can make it to the next level.
It's been a while since that has happened. Outside of Coyle, Miller, and Todd Heap, ASU's tight ends have largely flown under the radar since the early 1980s.
The last ASU tight end other than that trio to receive first or second team All-Conference honors? Bob Brasher (second-team) in 1992.
The NFL Draft record is even more sparse.
Despite his on-field production, Coyle went undrafted. The most recent Sun Devil tight end to be drafted was Miller, who was a second-round selection in 2007. Six years before that, Heap was a first round pick of the Baltimore Ravens. Technically, records count Brian Jennings's seventh-round selection by the San Francisco 49ers in 2000 among the group, even though he was a long snapper (over 14 NFL seasons, he never caught a pass. At ASU, he caught just four).
Beyond that? You have to go way back to 1984 when Don Kern was taken by the Cincinnati Bengals in the fourth round.
Three true tight ends drafted in 35 years. Not ideal.
Reversing that trend requires the right players, the right scheme, and the right commitment.
"That’s going to be the expectation when I’m recruiting the tight ends is getting the guys we think can play at the next level, which in turn will help us be very successful on offense," Yantis said.
It's why he wanted Nolan Matthews to be a Sun Devil.
* * *
So back to the whole looking the part thing.
As the sport has evolved, so too have the demands on tight ends. No longer just an extension of the offensive line, tight ends are used in numerous ways, from the traditional in-line spot to out wide, in the backfield, or in the slot. They need to be an offensive weapon, and the best are a mix of size, speed, and athleticism that presents matchup nightmares for the defense.
Nolan Matthews already cuts an imposing figure. He says he will report to ASU this summer just a shade under 6-foot-6 and 238 pounds, with an expectation that he'll play in the 240 to 245-pound range. With time and strength training, Yantis projects him to be able to reach 250 or 260 pounds while retaining his athleticism.
That combination has allowed Matthews to flourish as a receiving threat. As a senior at Reedy, he hauled in 55 passes for 756 yards and nine touchdowns and earned All-District 13-5A First Team honors.
"My receiving ability is some of the best in the country as far as tight ends," Matthews said. "I don’t think there’s anyone in the country my size that can get open like I can or run routes like I can. My hands are a big thing. And my heart. It doesn’t matter what I’m doing, I’m going to try my hardest."
Matthews uses several of the NFL's top tight ends as inspiration. He models his route running after Zach Ertz, his running after the catch on Travis Kelce and Evan Engram (his favorite player), and in the redzone, the new Sun Devils aims to be, well...a Wildcat.
“In the redzone, just be a beast like Gronk (Rob Gronkowski) is," Matthews said. "Someone you can rely on. Mr. Reliable. Always gonna come down with it”
Yantis liked what he saw out of Matthews as a receiver.
"He’s very, very athletic for a big man," Yantis said. "He’s a big dude. He’s very nimble on his feet.
"When he caught the ball, he wasn’t a guy that goes down very easily. He took a bunch to the house when he caught the ball, just outran everybody. I think he’s very explosive. He’s got a ton of potential.”
But the best tight ends do more than catch passes.
Matthews put up the bulk of his numbers at Reedy while lined up outside, and it wasn't until his senior year that he spent significant time as a traditional in-line tight end.
While some tight ends with his playmaking ability may have bristled at the demands to stay in an block, Matthews understood the value it held.
“I saw the different things you can do out of it," said Matthews. "The fear you can strike into a defense and a defensive coordinator if you can block, you’re dominating the defensive end and that makes everyone else worry about the run. Then they suck up, and then you can pop out behind them. It opens up so many doors that receiver doesn’t, which I really like. What I’ve worked on a lot is learning how to block and learning how to get dirty in the trenches.”
Having not been asked to do it much to this point in his career, Matthews knows that blocking is where his game needs to make the most improvement.
Yantis made sure Matthews was able to watch ASU's installs from spring practices, and he gave him a list of things to work on in the months prior to Matthews' arrival in Tempe. Yantis believes the first two weeks of fall camp will be critical for Matthews, and he plans to spend a lot of extra time working with him on footwork, techniques, and positioning.
Yantis even thinks Matthews' relative inexperience with blocking can work to his favor.
“It’s almost good that you get someone who hasn’t done a lot of it, because he hasn’t learned any negative techniques," said Yantis. "He’s an eager learner and a very intelligent young man.”
Whatever he's asked to do, Matthews will be aided by his multi-sport background.
"In basketball, learning how to use block out and rebound and seeing the ball come off the rim, so with football, it’s seeing the ball in the air, high-pointing it and getting the timing down," Matthews said. "Whenever you’re running a route like a slant or an in, you box out the DB. Intertwining some of them, it makes it easier. Learning from different coaches and the way things are taught, you get a different point of view.”
From a coach's perspective, Yantis covets a player who plays multiple sports, especially basketball.
“I love it, it really shows their athleticism," said Yantis. "To be a hoop player, you have to be athletic and have great hand-eye coordination. You have to be quick on your feet. That’s one of the things I look for when I’m recruiting a tight end is if they play multiple sports."
In fact, he'll often travel to watch tight end prospects play basketball in person. Recently, Yantis watched film on a tight end prospect and liked what he saw, so he went to see him in person.
"After watching him play basketball, I loved him," Yantis said.
Size. Speed. Skills. It's what makes a great player. It's what ASU needs.
“That’s exactly what I’m doing when I’m recruiting," Yantis said. "We’re recruiting length. We’re recruiting athleticism. Guys that we can project that will be NFL-type players."
* * *
"We're evolving," Yantis admits.
Last year, starting tight end Tommy Hudson—a quality run blocker—caught 13 passes for 66 yards. In passing situations, the coaches would take him off the field.
“Last year when we went into 10 personnel (one running back and no tight end), we pulled Tommy out and put N’Keal (Harry) in at the Y (tight end position)," said Yantis. "That was where N’Keal did some damage when lined up in that slot position, and that’s where we want the tight end to line up so he can do those type of things.”
Seeing Harry—recently the first round draft pick of the New England Patriots—operate out of the Y caught Matthews' attention while he was watching his future team in action last season.
“Watching N’Keal and being in awe of everything he can do,” Matthews said. “N’Keal would play some Y in the offense last year, and that let me know that they want to use the Y position. They don’t want to disregard it, they want to use it. That let me know they’re going in the right direction.”
ASU's goal is to have a tight end who can do the dirty work in the trenches on one play and then operate effectively out of the slot the next.
"Not just a guy who can block and do the things inside," said Yantis, "but we want to be able to stay in the 11-personnel sets (one running back and one tight end) and be able to line up in 10-personnel sets and that guy be a mismatch for an outside linebacker or a safety."
At 6-foot-2 and 228 pounds, Harry proved to be a mismatch for defenses out of the slot. Yantis hopes for a similar impact from the larger Matthews.
"Bringing Nolan in, our goal is to stay in 11 personnel with 10-personnel alignments,” Yantis said.
Matthews is joining a tight end room that includes the senior Hudson, junior Jared Bubak, and 6-foot-8 junior Curtis Hodges, who converted to tight end from wide receiver during spring practices.
To get playing time in 2019, Matthews will have to be ready to compete, but as Yantis notes from last year, Edwards "wants the best players on the field, it doesn’t matter what year they are.”
The door is open and the expectations are high, both from the coach and the player.
“Getting him ready to play on the offensive side of the ball is a high priority for us," Yantis said. "Our offense really does involve the tight end. If these guys prove that they can do the things we think they can do on the perimeter, we’re certainly going to use them in the type of roles that we did last year with N’Keal.”
"I would think throwing to me is something that they’d want to do," said Matthews. "That’s what they’ve been telling me. If something is not working out or they see something else in the defense, I’m good with doing whatever they want. Just using me to my strengths would be the biggest part. Running routes, catching the ball, being on the receiving end is my biggest strength.”
Especially during crunch time.
"If the game is on the line, I want the ball in my hands," Matthews said. "I want the ball to come to me."
* * *
It may be unfair to expect any player to rise to the standards of Todd Heap, Zach Miller, or Chris Coyle, yet that is exactly what ASU's program intends to do. To get to where they want to go, the Sun Devils have to get back to where they were.
It'll take the right approach, it'll take the right type of player, and it'll take time.
“We’ve transformed that (tight end) room over the last 12 months," Yantis said. "That’s going to be the expectation when I’m recruiting the tight ends is getting the guys we think can play at the next level, which in turn will help us be very successful on offense.”
This season, Matthews just wants to contribute however he can—whether on offense or special teams—with an eye towards earning a spot an All-Freshman teams. But beyond that, the expectations for him and future Sun Devil tight ends will skyrocket.
“They want to have an NFL tight end that they can hang up in the room here at Arizona State," Matthews said.
If all goes to plan, Heap, Miller, and Coyle may have some company in a few years.