Hubner poised for breakout season

With the start of the 2012 season just four days away, the Sun Devils are still a team of great unknown. Inexperience on both sides of the ball, along with a number of new names to the two-deep depth chart make it anybody's guess as to what to expect from Arizona State this year. One thing is for sure though, and that's the leg of senior punter Josh Hubner.

Josh Hubner joined the Sun Devils in 2011 as a junior after spending his first two years at Scottsdale Community College. As the full time starter last season, he averaged 41.3 yards per kick, providing ASU with stability at punter and giving them an additional special teams weapon.

From spring camp and throughout the fall though, there has been a noticeable change in Hubner's craft. He's been more consistent with his kicks, something he struggled with at times last season, showing great command of his power and direction, booming kicks all over the Kajikawa practice field and sending them crashing into the ceiling of the Verde Dickey Dome.

Armed with the focus of a determined upperclassman and a powerful right leg, he says he feels a renewed confidence in his kick, which is something he's looking forward to showing off.

"I think a lot of it is confidence in my drop," said Hubner after practice on Sunday as the team continues to gear up for its season opener against Northern Arizona on Thursday. "Throughout the day, normally, you'll find me with a football, just dropping the ball. The most important thing with punting is the drop, hands down. If you're a punter and you can trust your drop, then you can swing your leg as hard as you want. I'm at the point now where my drop is exactly where I want it to be just about every single time, given that I get a decent snap.

"And a lot of that is confidence as well. You know, once I start hitting the ball and hitting the ball and hitting the ball, consistently where I want it and how high I want it, with the hang time, and having all these guys telling me good job, it builds up the confidence."

Along with developing a consistent drop, Hubner spent a considerable amount of time this summer working on his punting approach, something he also attributes to the early success he's had this fall. He's been experimenting with new stance and a quicker step, something he says is designed to get the ball out of his hands and in the air faster, reducing the likelihood of a blocked or rushed kick while still allowing him to maximize his power.

"Now I have sort of a different stance, which is my right foot back a little bit further, so as soon as I catch the ball I take my first step with the right foot - so it's right, left, go - and that takes about three-tenths of a second off my get off time, which puts my right at a high 1.8, low 1.9, which is very preferable in college football," he explained. "I really just worked on consistency this summer. That's pretty much all I did. I also did a lot of work on flexibility and leg extension and stuff like that, and that stuff has definitely helped me."

New Head Coach Todd Graham has spent a large portion of this offseason stressing the importance of mastering the details of the game to his football team. He believes it's the details that can determine wins from losses. One of those details is special teams, as the team regularly spends most of the first hour of practice working on a variety drills to improve upon their special teams play.

While it may have taken the Sun Devils a while to come around to the newly placed emphasis on special teams, Hubner feels it'll benefit ASU in 2012.

"I think it took a lot of getting used to for some of these guys because the procedures and stuff that they do is much different than what we used to do," he said. "Not to take anything away from the emphasis on special teams from the former staff, but these guys walked in here and one of the first things that they talked about was how important special teams were and how the kickoff team and kickoff cover team and punt return team are the most important plays in football. He lets those guys eat first when it comes to our meals.

"He preaches every single day how it's the most important play in football. We put so much emphasis on it because we have to, it's a very important part of the game."

Despite the extra effort the team has put on special teams this fall, it remains as one of the biggest unknowns as the season looms near, primarily long and short snapping. As unconventional as it may sound, the Sun Devils will most likely go into 2012 with Hubner as the starting short snapper on field goals, a position normally reserved for the first or second team center.

Despite the unexpected additional workload and the unusual way it came to be, Hubner insists he feels comfortable snapping and welcomes the challenge.

"That was a pretty funny transition for me," he recalled. "It was just kind of out of blue one day. The short snaps were, well, you know. There was Mo (Latu), there was Easton (Wahlstrom), there were some other people going at it; it was just getting kind of frustrating. So I just kind of went up there, bent over and snapped the ball and it looked pretty good. The coaches were like 'Hey, you want to do it?' And for me, anything that helps this team, I'm going to do, so they put me in there.

"Now I've got to snap the ball and get in front of those big, huge defensive linemen, but I feel like it's not something that I can't handle. I enjoy it. And the plus side to it is, it's a nice little resume builder."

Something that Hubner may not view with such optimism has been the continued struggles with long snapping, something that he unfortunately cannot help with. True freshman Easton Wahlstrom was brought in specifically for the role of long snapping, but has struggled with his consistency throughout camp, continually skipping balls to Hubner or putting them over his head, a growing concern for the Sun Devils with the season less than a week away.

Nonetheless, Hubner says he remains confident in his teammates, despite the occasional frustration.

"I like to have as much confidence as possible in my teammates as I can and the most important part is encouragement," he said. "I try to do that, but can't guarantee that I'm like that all the time because it does become very frustrating, especially with a true freshman long snapper in there. The nerves become an issue and the inconsistency, it does it get a little frustrating at times but you just have to stay positive and believe that whoever is in there is going to do the job they're in there to do.

"Right now I'm confident that the ball is going to get back to me. I can work with a little snap off right, snap off left, high/low. I look at it as a good thing in that it really built my ability to field bad snaps. So if anything, when we get somebody in there at it becomes much more consistent, at that point I'll still be able to handle bad snaps, if there are bad snaps."

This week the Sun Devils got some much welcomed depth at the long snapper position as tight end Max Smith returned to action after sitting out most of the fall camp with lingering back soreness. While he may not be answer to ASU's snapping woes, Smith offers experience and insurance to a much maligned and valued position.

"Max is unique in the way that he's just kind of an all around athlete," described Hubner. "He was a punter in high school, played a little tight end; he's a lot like me. There were always whispers of him being able to long snap. He's working really hard right now and I know Coach Graham likes him. I know everybody was happy to have some depth at long snapper.

"So right now I'd say that there's a competition between him and Easton and these coaches have said since Day 1 that they're going to play the player who can go in there and do the job the best. I know Max is pretty passionate about it, but as far as who's going to be the long snapper, right now it's Easton. Until something happens in a game or they say otherwise, that's how it's going to be."

Aside from snapping, the Sun Devils have also been trying to figure out who their starting place kicker will be for the 2012 season. Sophomore Alex Garoutte got the nod last year and performed decently overall, though he struggled down the stretch and missed a handful of important kicks, contributing to Arizona State's late season collapse.

Since then, the coaching staff has brought in both Dillon Jackson, also from Scottsdale Community College, and walk-on Jon Mora. All three kickers have had their moments during camp where they stood out, but as camp comes to an end, it appears Garoutte is still the starter heading into the season.

"Dillon Jackson is someone who I kicked with at junior college and is one of my best friends and I had the opportunity to put him on with the coaches and since he's been here he's been a very good utility specialist," said Hubner. "He can punt, he can kick, he can do onsides, he can do all that stuff. He's a very good field goal kicker.

"With these guys, I think it's nerves - and you can't say that the nerves don't get to you, especially at that position - so with that, I think they're doing well. If you ask them, they'll always say there's room for improvement. Just like in my game there's room for improvement. I think the most important thing is consistency and confidence for them. I think they're a very, very talented group of specialists. I don't think you'll find a group of three kickers at any other school as good as these guys."

Despite the uncertainty at a number of other positions on the Sun Devil roster, fans can take solace in the talent, confidence and determination of Josh Hubner. With only one season left to showcase his skill-set, the senior is poised to go out with a bang.

"I've said it time and time again, I'm my own worst critic," Hubner lamented. "I'm never really satisfied with my performance. Any time I punt the ball I always feel like I could have done it better, even if it's a monstrous, booming kick. My goal, as far as this season, I want to be All-Pac 12. I want to be an All-American. I want to tell you that's exactly what I'm going to do.

"You know, I go out there, I get the right blocks up front which gives me the confidence. I've got that big, huge, massive man-shield in front of me (defensive lineman Mike Pennell). If I get the snap I'm going to get the ball up in the air and put my defense in the position to make some big plays. So again, as far as my goals, it'll definitely be to have an All-Pac 12 season and there's nothing else that's acceptable."

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