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July 30, 2007

Camp Preview: TE

Arizona State is set to return every starting offensive player from the second-half of the 2006 season with the exception of one. Unfortunately for the Sun Devils, that one player is Rivals.com second-team All-American tight end Zach Miller, who totaled 144 catches for 1,512 yards and 14 touchdowns in his three-year career before electing to enter the NFL draft in lieu of returning to Tempe for his senior season.

Losing a player of Miller's caliber in any year is tough, but for it to come on the heels of a season in which the Sun Devils finished seventh in the Pac-10 in passing offense could be particularly problematic for the program, especially considering he led the team in catches (50), receiving yards (484) and touchdown catches (4).

In addition to his success catching the football, Miller was considered to be one of the top blockers on the team, and he was instrumental in the success of the ASU rushing attack, which was as successful as any season in recent memory.

Miller's brother, Brent Miller had 11 catches for 173 yards and one touchdown last season, the next closest tight end on the team production-wise. The 6-foot-5, 237 pound senior started 11 of the team's 13 games last season at the H-Back position. He's a versatile talent who will likely be the team's go-to player at the position group now that Zach Miller has departed.

As a downfield receiver, Miller is very talented and may in fact not be much of a drop-off from his brother. He's sure handed and relatively fleet of foot. He can play either the traditional tight end spot (labeled by ASU as the Y-position) or as an extra slot-type receiver (labeled by ASU the U-position) in a double tight end alignment.

The question really is whether or not Miller, who is 20-plus pounds lighter than his brother, will be as capable a blocker, and whether he will be as impacting in the clutch. They are questions with uncertain answers coming out of spring ball.

Behind Miller at the U-position, hybrid wide receiver/tight end Tyrice Thompson may have helped his case for future playing time more than anyone else on the offense this spring. The 6-foot-5, 220-pounder is bigger than the average receiver but faster and more athletic than the typical tight end.

Thompson has struggled to make the routine catch in the past, but he was more consistent in that regard than at any point in his career to this point. The Sun Devils will likely use him in four and five wide alignments and he could backup Miller or even play alongside Miller on passing downs.

Ideally, the team would like to have the ability to sometimes use someone other than Miller or Thompson as a primary run blocker (at the Y-position), probably Dane Guthrie, who at 6-foot-3, 267 pounds, has gained approximately 15 pounds since last season, and is in much better shape physically than at any point in his career.

First-year coach Dennis Erickson has publicly stated the team will utilize two tight end formations at times this coming season and beyond. Miller has the versatility and experience to fit into any scheme and be relatively successful. Others on the team are less proven commodities in this respect. Only Miller is listed on the depth chart at both the tight end positions.

Guthrie is the only other player to catch at least one ball last season, and he had a modest four receptions for 15 yards, in seven appearances. After a relatively impressive spring, Guthrie is well-positioned to play a much bigger role in the coming season.

Though he's been tagged as a bit of an underachiever, Guthrie has clearly shown in recent months that he's very willing to work hard for this new coaching staff, and with his ample potential and improved conditioning/physicality he'll be a key player to watch in this group moving forward.

In the double tight end sets, Miller and Guthrie probably played more on the first-team together than any other combination, with Miller sliding out to word as more of a traditional receiver from the U-position.

Others on the roster include Brady Conrad, Andrew Pettes, Jovon Williams, and Lance Evbuomwan.

Conrad joined the program as a walk-on out of the junior college ranks last year and quickly earned a scholarship following his excellent performance in fall camp, where he outperformed many of his peers at the position. At 6-foot-4 and 256 pounds he has a mature body and a versatile skill set. He has an intelligence approach to the game and at times played with the first-team this spring. Whether he's athletic enough to have a major impact remains to be seen. He figures to be primarily used at the Y-position, where he will battle with Guthrie and others for playing time.

Pettes arrived at ASU in the same class as Zach Miller and was very highly esteemed in his own right. He was one of the top tight end prospects in the west and ranked No. 12 by Rivals.com. At 6-foot-4, 252 pounds, he has great size and natural strength, and decent mobility. He has, however, failed to stand out in the crowd and this spring that continued to be the case. He is primarily a Y-position player.

Williams, 6-foot-4, 227 pounds, is cut out of a different cloth than the rest of his teammates at the position save Thompson, and he'll work at the U-position, fighting with Williams for playing time. He's not as big, but more explosive athletically than the others. He has added nearly 15 pounds in the off-season and now appears much more prepared to play the position. Erickson likes speed athletes, and it's not out of the question that Williams could become a real contributor in the team's wide open offense on passing downs, especially if he can hold his own with blocking assignments. He can certainly line up in the slot and take advantage of his speed and agility.

Evbuomwan was the lone scholarship addition in last year's signing class, selecting ASU over late interest from USC and a host of others. Still 18, Evbuomwan possesses a terrific frame at 6-foot-4, 268 pounds. Some of his teammates jokingly call him an offensive lineman due to his huge frame. He has excellent hands and moves very well for his size. He may have the most upside of all the tight ends on the roster, but how soon he realizes that potential remains to be seen.

Spring ball saw Evbuomwan do very well catching the ball, but it was often unpredictable how he'd do with blocking assignments. He'll have a tough task climbing the depth chart at the Y-position unless he's able to become more technically proficient. But if he does get it all down, watch out, because his combination of size, athleticism and pass catching ability surpasses several of the players currently ahead of him on the depth chart.

What well be watching in Fall Camp:

-It's unlikely in the extreme that Brent Miller will be able to, or asked to provide the pass catching production of his brother Zach, but if he's at least able to be a reliable tool in the passing game to the tune of several catches per game, it will make the job of a young receivers group a little easier. Will Miller be ready to provide that type of production?

-The Sun Devils are not going to be able to easily replace the outstanding blocking of Zach Miller but it will be important for Brent Miller, Guthrie and perhaps one or two others to do a solid job in this area to help maximize the strength of the offense, which figures to be the rushing attack.

-The depth chart battle at the Y-position could be one of the more intense and interesting to watch in camp. Can Guthrie separate himself from a group that includes Conrad, Pettes and Evbuomwan or will one of those players take a step up and even pass him to become the second stringer at the spot?

-This is a critical camp for Pettes. He came to ASU highly regarded but has not yet made his mark. Now a junior, and with a talented Evbuomwan on his heels, it's time for Pettes to step up if he's ever going to earn significant playing time.

-Ebvuoman has all the physical tools but tight end is a steep learning curve, particularly considering he's being asked to learn a new system and new way of doing things in this, his second year with the program. Can he take it all in and become proficient enough to make an impact this season?

-How will incoming freshman Dan Knapp, the top tight end in Nevada's 2007 recruiting class, look in fall camp?

ASUDevils.com is providing the most extensive fall camp Sun Devil preview to be found anywhere, be it in print or online. Join ASUDevils.com today for a free 7-day trial and read up on the first season of ASU football under new coach Dennis Erickson.


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