TEMPE, Ariz. — As Arizona State tight end Chris Coyle signed a few final autographs after Saturday’s spring game at Sun Devil Stadium, a fan asked how many more he had signed this year than the previous.
“Two to three times as many,” Coyle replied. “Last year I was hurt and just standing on the sidelines.”
Coyle’s popularity boom among fans reflects the season he had last year, and his performance in the scrimmage offered a glimpse of how he might be able to top it in 2013.
“He can be as good as he wants to be,” ASU coach Todd Graham said. “That’s what we’ve challenged him to be. Our best players, the standard moves up. It doesn’t stay the same.”
Coyle, now a senior, set an ASU record for receptions by a tight end with 57 and reached the end zone five times. His 696 receiving yards led the team as he became quarterback Taylor Kelly’s favorite target.
On Saturday, Coyle made seven catches for 82 yards and three touchdowns. Spring scrimmage stats aren’t particularly telling, as the top offense is often matched up against the backup defense, but Coyle was targeted plenty — and he he will be again this season.
“The sky’s the limit for him,” Kelly said. “He’s going to be a go-to guy for me to understand where he is at all times. If it’s a third down and I need him, I can always count on him to make a big play.”
As high as expectations are among Coyle’s teammates and coaches, his own expectations are probably even higher. He knows he had a good 2012 season, but he won’t be satisfied with a repeat performance and won’t go easy on himself.
“I’m my biggest critic,” Coyle said. “I did well last year, but I’m a senior now (and) it’s my second year in this offense. I’ve just got to build on what I did and hopefully go out and break my own record.”
The challenge for Coyle that didn’t exist at the start of last season: Opponents know about him. With just six receptions and 73 yards previously, Coyle probably wasn’t showing up on any scouting reports. But with the H-back position a key component of ASU’s offense, Coyle had one of the best seasons by a tight end in ASU history.
That season might have been even better were it not for ASU’s wide receiver problem. With few threats elsewhere, teams began to focus on Coyle.
“At the end of the season, they started keying on me a little bit,” Coyle said. “They understood what we were going to be bringing with our offense.”
Coyle will likely get that kind of treatment from the start in 2013, though things should open up a bit for him if receiving corps can become more of a threat. Either way, Coyle looks to again be one of the key cogs in ASU’s offense.
ANSWERS ON DEFENSE?
The 46 points scored by varying offensive units might not support the argument, but Graham thought the defense had the upper hand Saturday.
“I thought the defense dominated most of the scrimmage,” Graham said. “I thought they got after it.”
The first-team defense and first-team offense faced off at times Saturday, but there were more drives pitting the first team against the second team. Still, a few players stood out on defense. All-American defensive tackle Will Sutton and defensive end Davon Coleman each registered two sacks, while the defense finished with 14 tackles for loss and nine sacks. Senior defensive back Marlon Pollard notched the only interception of the day, picking off Kelly.
While ASU will certainly score plenty, Graham wants defense to be the team’s identity. Eight starters return from last season, so the Sun Devils are starting from a pretty good place, but there were a few questions to be answered in the offseason.
“On defense, the big thing is replacing Keelan (Johnson), replacing Brandon Magee and depth,” Graham said. “Those first two are very, very critical, and I think we’ll be able to do the third one.”
Spring practice has offered some early answers. Graham said after Saturday’s scrimmage he expects senior spur linebacker Chris Young to slide over to replace Magee at will linebacker. Young has worked at the position many times this spring, and his moving will likely mean a starting job for senior Anthony Jones at spur.
“Brandon Magee was a big part of the defense last season, and I’ve definitely got big shoes to fill,” Young said.
The battle to fill the free safety spot Johnson vacated remains more unsettled. Redshirt freshmen Laiu Moeakiola and Ezekiel Bishop appear to be the leading candidates, but more competition arrives in the fall.
ASU also must replace Deveron Carr at cornerback, and Graham said Saturday that senior Robert Nelson projects as the starter. He’ll have competition in the fall, though, particularly from Pollard and redshirt sophomore Rashad Wadood, who made a pair of nice plays Saturday on receiver Richard Smith. Wadood missed last season with a shoulder injury.
“It feels good to be back in the mix of everything after being out so long,” Wadood said. “I was a little out of shape (at the start of spring). I had to get back in football shape, get my confidence back.”
A few statistics of note from Saturday’s scrimmage:
— Kelly was 15 for 21 passing for 126 yards with two touchdowns and one interception.
— Redshirt sophomore quarterback Mike Bercovici was 8 for 13 passing for 114 yards and a touchdown.
— On 12 carries, senior running back Marion Grice tallied 56 yards and a touchdown.
–Senior receiver Kevin Ozier had six catches for 56 yards, and Smith had three catches for 54 yards and a touchdown.
— Former ASU quarterback Jake Plummer spent the last few days with the team, first meeting with Kelly and the other quarterbacks and taking in Thursday’s practice. He was perhaps the most popular man at Sun Devil Stadium on Saturday, stopping to sign autographs and take pictures with any fan who asked. Plummer addressed the team at midfield once the scrimmage ended.
— The spring game brought out 6,386 fans, according to a media relations official. That doesn’t seem like much compared to the numbers some SEC or Big Ten schools draw for their spring games, but for ASU, that’s a solid number. The crowd appeared better than it has been in any recent season.
— Running back Deantre Lewis did not participate Saturday after suffering a groin strain in practice Thursday. Fellow running back D.J. Foster was also held out for precautionary reasons. He sprained his ankle in a scrimmage two weeks ago.
— Graham was asked his feelings about Notre Dame’s desire to back out of 2014 game with ASU in Tempe but offered no comment and said he’s focused on Sacramento State, the team’s first opponent of 2013.