Pre-Season Preview - Special Teams

Very few Sun Devil fans will dispute the fact that this unit was nothing "special" over the course of the 2000 season. This group executed every possible blunder that could and would happen. Nevertheless, the 2001 season brings a new and refreshed attitude that should erase the haunting memories of last year.

If there's a bright spot on special teams it would be without a doubt the punt unit. Senior Nick Murphy had an outstanding 2000 season. He was a semi-finalist for the Ray Guy award, and was a Pac-10 honorable mention. He averaged a solid 41.3 yards a punt. In spring practice he was asked to work more on his directional punting, and according to special teams coach Tom Osborne he has adapted very well to that: "He did the best job of any specialist on the team." Says the coach. Brain Biang and junior college transfer Tim Parker will battle not only for a backup spot, but also to assume Murphy's duties beginning in the 2002 season. Murphy talked about the new attitude towards special teams this year: "I love it. It's definitely an emphasis this year. There are a lot more players involved in special teams during practice, and that never happened before. We had some games lost last year because of blocked punts. Punts are one the biggest plays of the game. It's a 40-yard play with change in possession. So I think it's an important part of the game."

The place kicker job is more open for competition, but it would be a pretty significant upset if Mike Barth didn't keep his job as the field goal kicker. Barth connected on 66.7% of his kicks last season, including last second game winning field goals against Colorado State and Washington State. While Barth did a god job on in the field goal department, his kickoffs were another story. Unlike the last coaching regime, Osborne has no problem assigning kick-off duties to the best kicker out there, and right now that person figures to be Greg Pieratt. Barth is somewhat disappointed over that possibility: "Last year I did focus more on field goal kicking in practice, so my kick-offs weren't as good as they should be. This year, we're devoting more time for kick-offs, and there's a good balance on both. I would be disappointed if I didn't have both jobs. I want to do both. I want the best person to do the job, and I believe that I am the best person. So, hopefully I can prove it this year." It seems that the national college Football experts are expecting a big season from the Sun Devil kicker, since Barth is one of 30 players on the preseason watch list for the 2001 Lou Groza Collegiate Place kicker Award. Travis Cloyd, who came as much heralded recruit, has had an awful spring, and he would have to have a monstrous pre-season performance to even have a chance to move up from the bowls of the depth

The high snaps that were a sad staple of ASU's special teams have seemed to vanished during spring practice. Scott Peters is backed up by Travis Scott as the short snapper.  B.J. Miller and Jay Breckenridge are the long snappers, and according to Osborne they have "Drastically improved in the spring-time." Last season Shaun McDonald and Justin Taplin rotated as the punt returners, and will re-assume those duties this year. McDonald's return average of 9.4 yards was higher than Taplin's 6.7, and he also has to his credit an 81-yard touchdown against USC. Nevertheless, McDonald will have to improve on his indecisiveness, than caused him to fumble at times. McDonald would most likely get the nod as the #1 punt returner, but Taplin isn't too far behind. At kick returner, Delvon Flowers who averaged 22.3 yards per return in 1999, and Tom pace who led the nation in kick return average while playing at Idaho, should be permanent kick returners for the Devils. Mike Williams would be the primary backup here. If not redshirted, look for the speedy Daryl Lightfoot to possibly play a role in the punt or kick return game.

The hiring of Dirk Koetter was easily the most important Football personnel move in the last few months by ASU. Nevertheless, Koetter's hiring of assistant coach Tom Osborne to oversee the special teams ranks a very close second. Osborne came from Oregon, where his special teams were not only best in the Pac-10, but one of the best in the nation. His Oregon's kick-off return, kick-off coverage, and net punting statistics were the conference best last season. Osborne has preached the fact that the majority of Pac-10 scores end in a margin of six points or less, which further stresses the importance of this unit in determining the outcome of a game. Spring practice put into action the value the coaching staff puts on special teams. The attention to detail and enthusiasm of special teams coach Tom Osborne was quite evident this spring, and a welcome sight for the team's critics.

Coach Osborne has been extremely pleased so far with the play of the special teams: "I'm excited how we're structuring our practices with the players' input, and how they have responded to what we're trying to teach. Not everything is that different to them, but the guys are doing a great job doing what we ask of them. I have been way fired up about our guys' performance." When asked about the competition at place kicker versus punter, Osborne replied: "We're just as concerned about who plays left tackle on the punt team, as we are about the place kicker. Our guys should be competing for all the positions out there on special teams. We spend as much time with the kickers, as we do with all the other guys on the field. Murphy has been awesome, and he has a great mental approach to the game. He's tough guy and a hec of a punter. That's a good combination to have.

When asked if he would consider having one kicker who will assume kick-off duties only, and one solely for field goals, the coach replied: "Absolutely. We have to find the best guys to help us win the game for us on every single play. So if we have a guy kicking extra points, a guy kicking field goals, and a guy to kick long field goals, so be it. Whatever we have to do win we will do it. Just like if we have to change other positions in special teams. Whatever we need to do to gain a few inches or yards in a game, then we're going to do it. Every job is open, and the players that haven't seen much play love the new opportunity they have. Some guys will rise to the top. The job evaluation will be ongoing during the season. We're not going to cut a player because he missed a field goal, but we have to find the player that can do the job consistently. When we find that player, that's the one that will play. It may be harsh, but that's how college Football is." The coach is keen on forgetting the past and concentrating on the present and future: " Whatever happened last year doesn't mean a hill of beans. Our focus is what how we'll be come September

The talent on special teams, along with the proven expertise of coach Osborne should vastly improve this group's play. While many fans are anxious to see how the new offensive and defensive schemes under coach Koetter and coach Guy materialize, the performance of the special teams could be the most improved aspect of this team. By all indications, this group could erase the horrors of last year and be justify the word "special" in its title.

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