TEMPE — Someone occasionally tells Arizona State senior tight end Chris Coyle his receiving statistics.
“I think I’m about halfway to where I was last year,” Coyle said. “I’m perfectly fine with that.”
Coyle’s math is about right. Twenty-one catches for 330 yards through eight games isn’t anything to sneeze at but pales in comparison with his 2012 numbers: 696 yards on 57 receptions, the latter a school record for his position.
The 6-foot-3-inch, 240-pound Coyle is on track for 428 receiving yards and 35 catches over a 13-game season, although he already is one score shy of matching his 2012 touchdown total of five. One explanation for the drop-off is that Coyle is receiving extra attention from defenses.
“I’ll see linebackers and safeties calling out where the three-back is in every formation on the offense,” Coyle said. “That’s sort of how they actually key their defenses. It’s been tough, but my job is to run the route and get open and figure out how to beat whatever coverage they throw at us.”
Last year, that might have hurt the Sun Devils, who passed for fewer than 200 yards three times in their last four games. But with a stronger pass-catching core in 2013, led by transfer receiver Jaelen Strong (49 catches) and do-everything backs D.J. Foster (43) and Marion Grice (35), ASU can manage when a defense keys on Coyle.
“This season, guys have been making plays all over the field,” Coyle said. Quarterback Taylor Kelly “has done a great job of throwing to the outside — fades, deep routes, things like that. .”
The lowered production hasn’t decreased the hits Coyle has taken. The NCAA’s controversial new targeting penalty has been called twice against ASU opponents for hits on Coyle. Under the rule, the flagged player is ejected and his team penalized 15 yards. A video review allows for the ejection to be overturned, but the penalty sticks.
Coyle said he took three or four hits last year that would have qualified as targeting and thinks as a tight end he’s more susceptible to it.
“It’s tough for the defenders, honestly,” he said. “It’s hard for them to know exactly where they’re hitting. Everything happens so fast. I feel bad for the guys that they got kicked out.”
Defense settling in
After toying with the defensive lineup for much of the season, the Sun Devils seem to have found a mix that works.
Injuries, with trying to put the right players in the right positions, have caused ASU to use seven starting lineups in eight games. Only four players — safety Alden Darby, cornerback Osahon Irabor, defensive tackle Will Sutton and Devil-backer Carl Bradford — have played every game at the same position.
“Nine have been pretty consistent,” ASU coach Todd Graham said. “We’ve played at a very high level with about nine guys, eight most of the time. We’ve just got to get those other two or three guys playing.”
The positions in question likely are Spur linebacker and field safety. Anthony Jones has started at Spur for all but two games, when Will linebacker Chris Young took over. Viliami Moeakiola began the season as field safety, and though he started there against Washington State, he has given way to transfer Damarious Randall.
Moeakiola now is at Spur backing up Jones, who is dealing with a shoulder issue this week.
The shifting around seems to have paid off. After giving up 30 points a game through the first five weeks of the season, ASU has surrendered just under 20 a game over its past three.
“To me, it says that we have guys who are starting to really understand our system in multiple positions,” defensive coordinator Paul Randolph said.
The Sun Devils defense has been among the more opportunistic ones in the Pac-12. Their opponent Saturday, Utah, gives defenses a lot of opportunities.
ASU is fourth in the conference with 18 takeaways, and Utah has given the ball away 17 times, including 15 interceptions.
“The key for us on defense is every time you get a turnover, you’re playing five less snaps,” Graham said. The key for us is to win the turnover-ratio battle. We’ve done pretty good so far.”
The Sun Devils will have to watch their fumbling, however. ASU fumbled twice against Washington State, losing one, and Utah is third in the Pac-12 with eight fumble recoveries.
“We visited about that,” Graham said. “We put the ball in jeopardy more last week than we have all year long.”