Derek Sage had a lot of nice things to say about Devin Asiasi. The UCLA tight ends coach talked breathlessly about his pupil's potential, his willingness to block, his versatility and especially the uncommon athleticism that allowed him to sail down the seam and make big plays for the Bruins offense.
While discussing Asiasi's future, Sage also took some time to remember the past. Specifically, he offered his fondest memory of the 6-3, 257-pound tight end. But instead of gushing about a key catch that helped secure a victory or a block that allowed his running back to pick up a game-sealing first down, the coach opted to focus on Asiasi's baking ability.
Yup, Sage's biggest memory of his two years working with Asiasi came last Thanksgiving, when the burly tight end spent the holiday helping Sage's 6- and 9-year-old daughters bake and decorate gingerbread cookies.
"That was a pretty unique deal right there," Sage said with a laugh. "But that's just the kind of kid he is. He's very unassuming, and my girls loved it. He had a great time with them, decorating cookies and just enjoying the holiday."
Don't be fooled by Sage's sweet story, however. He believes Asiasi has a very bright future ahead of him, even if he and UCLA head coach Chip Kelly failed in their efforts to convince him to stay.
Sage explained that he and Kelly had a meeting with Asiasi, explained how another year in college could really boost his draft stock and how much he factored into their plans for the 2020 season. Sage said Asiasi played "at an elite level over the final four games" of the Bruins season, and told him that was just the tip of the iceberg.
"He's still an underclassmen … we wanted him to say," Sage explained. "We talked to him and Chip always gives it to the kids straight. If we know a kid will be drafted high, top two or three rounds, he's not going to hold him back. We thought Devin could use another year.
"If I knew he would go in the third I would have told him to leave. That's too good of an opportunity to pass up. He has a chance to go and compete for a starting job in the NFL. He made the right decision, and I told him [after the draft] that 'I'm proud of you.' The sky's the limit for Devin."
There were a couple of reasons Sage and Kelly were skeptical before the draft. First, Asiasi's college career began at Michigan, where he appeared in all 13 games as a true freshman in 2016. But he suffered an injury he following year, at which point the already bigger-than-the-average tight end ballooned to just under 290 pounds.
He decided to return closer to home and arrived at UCLA, where he sat out the 2017 season under the NCAA's transfer rules. In 2018, Sage's first with the Bruins, Asiasi made an immediate impact on his position coach, but he also had to endure some bouts of immaturity.
"When I got here he was already here. I had no preconceived notions," Sage said. "I'm originally from Northern California so I know all about De La Salle (Asiasi' high school) and the powerhouse that it s. I knew he was a special football player. He was the second string tight end and he had a good receiving tight end in front of him. But we knew he was going to be something special.
"But he also had to learn to be more consistent, and he's still doing that to some extent. He will need to learn how to be a pro and everything that goes along with that."
Part of that consistency was avoiding trouble. Asiasi was suspended for the first three games of the 2018 season for violating team rules. Sage did not get into the specifics, but it's clear that's what he was alluding to when he mentioned consistency.
The transfer and suspension led to basically just one year of true production, which came in a terrific 2019 campaign for Asiasi. Asiasi shed some of his "bad weight" and played at closer to 260 (he weighed in at 257 at the Combine). He finished with 44 receptions for 641 yards and four touchdowns after entering the season with just eight catches for 148 yards and two TDs in his career.
"This year he took off with the position," Sage said. "The last four games I think he played at an elite level. He's a true 50-50 tight end with the ability to stretch the field vertically and horizontally, block against a 7-technique, 6-technique and even play off the ball as a fullback. That's worth its weight in gold to save roster spots like that in the NFL, and I know Coach Belichick loves that.
"His overall athleticism really sticks out. You're not going to find a lot of 6-3, 260-pound tight ends who drop their hips, change direction and pull away like he does. It takes most players two steps to re-gather themselves and brace for impact. Devin does it in one step. He has great pad level and in terms of blocking in space it really shows up."
After a season in which the Patriots went largely without an option at tight end, Asiasi should get a chance to step into a significant role immediately and compete for a starting job.
View photos of Patriots TE Devin Asiasi in action during his time at UCLA.