An Ode to Devin Asiasi: The Dual Threat Tight End Prospect We Need

Photo by Kyusung Gong/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

 

When evaluating the 2020 NFL Draft class at the tight end position, you quickly find that while there may not be a clear top dog of the group, there are some interesting depth pieces that can fill several different roles. Anything from in-line options, H-back types and glorified slot receivers, there is a flavor to quench everyone’s thirst.

So do yourselves a favor and don’t scour the draft universe to find the unquestioned all around option that transcends the inconsistencies of the 2020 group. Find what you like, and believe in it.

Or better yet, find the prospect who has glimpses of that all around game… again believe in it, cultivate it and keep your scouting report close.

It seems like some are beginning to already heed those words. After a stellar 2020 Reese’s Senior Bowl, former Dayton star Adam Trautman is the latest riser to captivate Draft Twitter. An occurrence that I can’t say I am super surprised over. Trautman is good, and has been for quite some time now. Showing glimpses of big time ability throughout his Flyers career, Trautman ended his playing days with a bang, going off for 916 yards and 14 receiving touchdowns on 70 receptions. Clearly buoyed by a separation in talent, some have questioned how cleanly Trautman can translate to the next level. That concern has been significantly eased by his performance down in Mobile.

Just how long standing the Trautman hypes last remains to be seen. Dating back to summer scouting, we have seen players like Brycen Hopkins (Purdue), Hunter Bryant (Washington) and Jared Pinkney (Vanderbilt) stake claim to finish as the top tight end prospect in the 2020 NFL Draft class periodically. In the ever evolving draft cycle, one thing is certain, things can change quickly. As draftniks, we cling to our beliefs and flock to the shiny new toy.

So let me paint a picture for you. It is a brisk January morning for a young NFL Draft evaluator who is looking for some All-22 fix. Now he has no idea what to watch. All he knows is that he is starting to get the itch. Let’s put on some Oklahoma defensive tape. Sure, why not. For once in a couple seasons, the Sooners have a couple nice defensive pieces in linebacker Kenneth Murray and defensive tackle Neville Gallimore. They even have a cornerback named Parnell Motley who has his share of fan fare so far this draft season. Although I am not sure why, he is pretty bad… but that is a conversation for another day. 

So I sat down with my half gallon jug of Wawa iced tea (the only correct choice for my viewing pleasure… my kidney stones can thank me later). Absent to my previewing expectations, a UCLA bruin offensive player keeps flashing. No it’s not Joshua Kelly, who I’m sure would be most people’s first thought. Maybe Dorian Thompson-Robinson, the talented sophomore signal caller? Nope, he has a lot of things to work on. No, I keep seeing #86 flashing in both the run and pass game.

Who is this guy? So naturally, I pull up the greatest invention known to man, google.

I proceed to search up the “UCLA football roster” and scroll near the bottom of the 2019 roster. When I land on 86, eyebrows raise and flashbacks ensue. Suddenly I recalled that former Michigan tight end Devin Asiasi had made the journey back to his home state. A move that occurred a couple years prior, the presence of former All-Pac 12 tight end Caleb Wilson had removed some of the luster from the once top ranked tight end recruit. 

Flying under the radar for the early juncture of draft season, UCLA tight end Devin Asiasi is not a player foreign to the spotlight of heavy pressure and high expectations. He isn’t far removed from the labels “top recruit”, “next big thing” and “dynamic playmaker” plastered next to his name. The journey that once began in his home state of California ultimately circled back with a major, cold detour in the middle.

That journey is what has brought Asiasi to this point, shaped him into the player he is today and what will allow for what tomorrow could bring. I wholeheartedly welcome Devin Asiasi to the tight end party. We have all been missing you. Let the rise begin! But before we get to the ending, or rather the apex of this story, the full scope of the journey is important to consider. 

With each stop came a plethora of challenges and lessons learned. Let’s call this tale, “How Devin Asiasi became a top-five tight end in the 2020 NFL Draft class”.

 

First Stop: De La Salle High School

Apart of arguably the most historic programs in high school football history, Asiasi continued a magnificent tradition of success while at De La Salle High School in Concord, California. For a player of this caliber, losing is not something he did very often. That included an astounding 56-2 record while suiting up for the Pilots. A star-studded team, Asiasi would have the privilege of playing with an array of talent while suiting up for De La Salle.

One player in particular he reunited with following his transition to UCLA, his old friend Boss Tagaloa was joining him on the offensive side of the football, manning the all important center spot.

His own position in particular was particularly crowded during his playing days. While he was first just getting his feet wet in the high school game in 2012, he shared the tight end room with a Senior by the name of Austin Hooper. Now Hooper was a big time recruit in his own right, all set to start his illustrious college career with the Stanford Cardinal the following year.

The next three seasons were Devin’s time to shine, cultivating in a notable senior season that would see him lead the team in receiving with 311 yards and five touchdowns on just 17 receptions. Numbers that on the surface will not turn too many heads, but for a team that averaged just north of 100 yards passing per game, the 6’3” 260 pounder showed constantly what type of player he could be moving toward the future. Just add an exclamation point to his impact in his final season at De La Salle, Asiasi would also star on defense, where he would record 49 tackles, four sacks and pass breakups.

Devin Asiasi’s presence was reciprocated during his senior year in 2015, tutoring a young freshman in Isaiah Foskey. As the two star tight ends before them, Foskey would become a main fixture in national recruiting. Eventually choosing the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame, Foskey would make the move over to the defensive side of the football at defensive end (keep a sharp eye out for #94 moving forward). Asiasi would not just leave some big shoes to fill for the program.

He left with a legacy that is sure to be remembered for some time now. A consensus four star recruit from every major recruiting service, Devin would rise to as high as the forty-fourth ranked player in the country by ESPN. 247Sports had him pegged as the third ranked tight end in the entire nation, sitting just below 2019 NFL Draft selections Isaac Nauta (Georgia) and Kaden Smith (Stanford).

With seemingly every major FCS program at his beck and call, the U.S. Army All-American honoree would eventually narrow his list down to USC, UCLA, Washington, Michigan and Alabama.

Now if you have skimmed ahead a bit in this feature a little, his ultimate decision is no surprise to you. He would ultimately choose to play for head coach Jim Harbaugh and the University of Michigan… making this the first stop on the college journey towards the 2020 NFL Draft.

 

Second Stop: Ann Arbor

The commitment to the University of Michigan seemed like a no brainer at the time. The Wolverines were fresh off a 10-3 campaign in Coach Harbaugh’s first year on campus. The former San Francisco 49ers head coach had seemingly done some magic with what was pegged as an underwhelming collection of talent in 2015.

Optimism was at all time high. Harbaugh was poised to take Michigan back to their former prominence as one of the blue blood programs in all of college football. Add in a fantastic mentor in former All-American Jake Butt already manning the position. Devin Asiasi’s future appeared bright with the program.

He would be part of another 10-3 campaign for the Wolverines in 2016, Harbaugh’s second season at the helm, appearing in 13 games as a reserve in two-three tight end sets, a role that made sense with Butt back for his senior year. His huge contributions came in the run game as a blocker, helping Michigan average 212 yards per game on the ground with the likes of De’Veon Smith, Chris Evans, Ty Isaac and Karan Higdon chewing up yardage.

That would make up for what can only be categorized as spotty quarterback play, led by the king of average, Wilton Speight. But hey, he’s tall so he must be good… right? Asiasi did not see the immediate return for his talent in the passing game. On the season, he would reel in just two receptions for 18 yards.

Of those two receptions, the highlight of Devin Asiasi’s Michigan career would undoubtedly be his three yard touchdown reception in the team’s 49-10 victory over Penn State.

As you can imagine, the Michigan faithful expected a whole lot more of that from the 6’3” 287 pound tight end during the final three years on campus. It just so happens, that is not how things were going to work out.

After just one season, Devin Asiasi made the decision to head back west to the Golden State. Home was calling. The stage was being set. The once lure of Michigan was dwindling, and Asiasi was off to nicer… and more familiar pastures.

 

Third Stop: “I’m going, back back, to Cali Cali!”

Ann Arbor is cool and all, but nobody can blame Devin for wanting to get back to the California sun. A decision he would ultimately make, settling on UCLA as the ending to his collegiate journey to play for head coach Jim Mora Jr. 2017 would be a series of transitions for Asiasi. For the first time in years, he was limited to no game action due to transfer rules.

He could do nothing to help his struggling team, limping to a 6-7 finish, including 35-17 loss to Kansas State in the Cactus Bowl. For a player who had experienced so much winning, 2017 was about as foreign a season as you could imagine. To take matters to an even higher extreme, the head coach that had lured back to the home state had been fired after a 5-6 start, and loss to cross town rival USC.

For the third season in a row, the Bruins had fallen victim at the hands of the University of Southern. This time, Mora Jr. would not be given another opportunity. This 28-23 loss would mark the end of his six years of reign over the program. Offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch was left to suffer through the remainder of 2017 for a Bruins team in flux.

Who would be the next man to lead the charge? What was the next step for the once proud UCLA program? The answer was a familiar name to all Pac 12 fans and was answered quickly for Bruins fans. Chip Kelly had once ruled the conference at the University of Oregon. Compiling a 46-7 overall record with the Ducks, Kelly would take his team to four BCS game appearances, being named Associated Press Coach of the Year in 2010.

Times were changing… and the UCLA faithful were excited. Just how quickly he would take the Bruins back to prominence was the overarching question. The next question, and perhaps more important to Devin specifically, is just how Kelly would be able to utilize his talents?

2018 would present a new opportunity for Devin Asiasi and the program. He would finally play the game again after a year in redshirt purgatory. With Caleb Wilson back for the year, the tight end room was in great hands. While Asiasi did flash to the tune of six receptions for 130 yards and one score, he was again in desperate need of volume to show off the tantalizing skill set.

With Wilson potentially returning for the 2019 season, when Asiasi’s time to shine would come became a very real question. Luckily, Caleb made it very apparent when he declared early for the 2019 NFL Draft. Finally, 2020 was all his! He was the show and everyone knew it.

Devin Asiasi would take full advantage of his opportunity in 2019. To the tune of 44 receptions, 641 yards and four scores, Devin was a bright star for a 4-8 Bruins squad that was starved for playmakers anywhere they can get it. That season ended with him being named an Honorable Mention All-Pac 12 selection by the league coaches. He was now… the player we had all envisioned coming out of De La Salle High School.

Now he was left with a decision of a whole different variety. Was he ready for a jump in competition? If 2019 was any indicator, the arrow is firmly pointed up for Asiasi’s professional outlook.

 

Next Stop: 2020 NFL Draft and the National Football League

The NFL prospects have come full circle for Devin Asiasi. The once promising high school recruit is now transitioning to another jump in competition. It is one that his level of talent is ready for. A somewhat surprising early entrant into the 2020 NFL Draft, Devin is on the verge of not being labeled a secret any longer. They say that the cream always rises to the top… and that is exactly what we are seeing here. Apart from a 2020 group that is in search of dual threat tight ends that can have an effect in the run and pass game, Asiasi is all set to establish himself firmly near the top of the list.

He currently sits inside my top-five tight end prospects in the cycle with a huge arrow pointing up. With the Combine in near sight, athletic testing is going to present a huge opportunity for Asiasi. From Michigan, to UCLA and now to the NFL… this story is something that could be featured on ESPN one day. Up until this point, he has done everything to prove people wrong and to grab an opportunity.

As we move that more closely to April, I propose a toast to Devin. Here is to Devin Asiasi, UCLA star, All-Pac 12 honoree and 2020 NFL Draft pick.

 

The Selling Points

With the image of the 6’3” 280+ pound Wolverine tight end entrenched in my brain, I wasn’t expecting a nuanced athlete with plus functional quickness. Boy was I wrong. He has some underrated hips and flexibility as a route runner. There is not much limitation to the complexity of his route tree, showing the ability to win both vertically and laterally. He is easily able to establish leverage at the top of the stem, creating instant separation as he explodes out of his breaks.

Working against linebackers is going to be a huge advantage for Devin Asiasi. He is far too athletic at his size to counteract momentum at a high enough rate. Then of course, the paradox of putting a safety on him begins. Not only are you taking away one of your better athletes to hide limitations on the second level of the defense, but you are of course giving up an extreme amount of size to the 6’3” 260+ pound Asiasi.

You leave yourself questioning what type of explosive qualities Devin Asiasi has as an athlete due to his body type. He is a well built player who is proportioned well from his torso all the way down to his lower body. It would be an easy assumption to make that he may be a one speed athlete who could take some time to work up to full speed. Then every once and awhile, you will see something crazy that makes your head tilt from one side to the other. We are not dealing with an ordinary athlete here folks.

The kid has some serious juice in his lower body. He is easily able to attack vertically, profiling well as a seam buster transitioning to the next level.

The lack of length does not help his causes in the run game. There are times where he can lose leverage working to the upfield shoulder, failing to cover enough surface area in an advantageous amount of time. Whether lined up in-line, or as an H-back, Devin has some underrated ability to generate power through his hips.

At first contact, he shows off some heavy hands to gain early initial leverage. Now he is nowhere near a finished product in the area. Chip Kelly’s offensive structure asked him to do a lot of work as a detached Y. That has eliminated some opportunity to show off his chops in-line. The tools are obvious however. Specifically in this 2020 group, where we are starved for blocking at the position, Asiasi could very well end up as one of the better in-line options in this class.

With his collegiate career in full scope, Asiasi is still a relatively inexperienced player who has only been the lead man in the clubhouse for one full season. There is notable upside for his future projection. He has reshaped his body big time over the last two seasons… and for big reason. He is a different level of athlete than we saw at the University of Michigan. He is beginning to tap into what is some big time long term potential. Don’t blink my friends… the rise is coming soon.

 

What Improvements are Needed?

With the underwhelming length, there is going to be a big emphasis on Devin Asiasi early to perfect his footwork to improve his angles as a blocker. He shows impressive initial power to gain leverage early in reps. The next step is for him to be able to transition to the second phase and transfer that momentum deep into reps. Creating more active feet on first contact can go a long way to maintaining proper body position. Inconsistent angles will also be huge for Asiasi to reach high highest potential in the run game. Whether in-line or in a displaced alignment, he has flashed the ability to adequately work into an ideal position.

Some people will point to Asiasi’s one year of production as a big question mark moving forward. It is definitely something to consider. For a player with such big time recruiting hype and obvious physical skills, there is going to be questions on why it took until his redshirt junior year for him to finally show what type of player he could be. Former UCLA standout tight end Caleb Wilson was a productive player, but it says a lot about the opinion on him when considering he was not selected until the seventh round of the 2019 NFL Draft. Why couldn’t Asiasi establish more of a role in 2018? These are things to consider. Sometimes coaches hesitate to shy away from the known product for the unproven. Devin Asiasi is a perfect example of that.

The rest of the evaluation is going to be about consistency for Devin. The tools are clearly there to succeed. The finer details are what matters. A foot angle as a blocker, a sink in the knee out of a break, a concentration through the catch point… the little things are going to be what separates Asiasi from quality depth player to big player on the professional level.

 

Get to Know Him a Little Better

Of course, Devin being the gentleman and scholar that he is, he generously agreed to answer a few questions for me.

 

I noticed your body looked quite a bit different from your days at Michigan. Was there an emphasis on your end to improve flexibility, straight line speed, etc?

“Definitely in my transition coming from Michigan I wanted to lose some weight. The flexibility came with me getting into the training room and working with my trainers to improve my ankle and hip mobility. During this past offseason, we had a lot of great work with our strength & conditioning coaches with working on technique and mechanics to work on our linear speed.”

 

What have been the biggest improvements in your game over the last two seasons?

“I think I’ve grown so much in the passing game since I got to UCLA. My route running and foot quickness have improved a lot, and that’s helped me get open on a more consistent basis, which has led to my increased production. What I’m excited about is that I feel like I still have a lot of room to improve as a route runner, and that my best football is in front of me.”

 

What do you intend to prove to NFL evaluators during this process?

“I want to prove to teams that I’m the best TE in the draft. I think I had a productive season and like I said, my best football is in front of me. I know a lot of teams haven’t seen me yet, but my goal is to show them I’m an elite prospect in the passing game and the running game.”

 

How was playing in a Chip Kelly offenses that values creating space, able to bring out the best in you leading to such high production?

“I think being in Coach Kelly’s offense helped me understand passing and running concepts more. Knowing the importance of my job and executing in the game. Getting more comfortable with offense and understanding it more gave me a lot more confidence as the season went on.”

 

Bottom Line

Checking in currently as my fifth ranked tight end in the 2020 NFL Draft, UCLA Devin Asiasi is the type of high upside athlete who could experience a big rise during the 2020 NFL Draft cycle.

Coming a long way from the 6’3” 287 pound plodder we saw at the University of Michigan, Asiasi has shaped himself into a prototypical modern day dual threat tight end prospect. With some added experience and fine tooling, we could be looking at a high upside pick to establish an important role early in his professional career.

In a somewhat underwhelming 2020 group, do not be surprised if Devin Asiasi is drafted a lot earlier than what he is currently projected. A surprisingly nimble athlete on film, the 2020 NFL Scouting Combine is going to be a big opportunity to show evaluators what type of athlete he is. It is my belief that he will leave Indianapolis as perhaps the biggest winner of the tight end group, starting a trend towards him hearing his name called on Day Two once April comes around.

 

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