Camp Storyline: Special teams overhaul

Arizona State has a new special teams coordinator and should look different in a number of areas on the field as a result.

First-year Arizona State assistant coach Shawn Slocum has brought a much-needed fresh set of eyes to the program's special teams.

With nine years of NFL experience at the NFL level including six as the head of Green Bay's special teams, Slocum has comprehensively overhauled the Sun Devils' practice approach. Having been displeased with underperforming special teams through three seasons, ASU head coach Todd Graham has given Slocum carte blanche to make whatever fixes he deems necessary.

Slocum structurally changed ASU's special teams practice segments in a number of ways. Most obviously, Slocum uses a microphone that blasts over loud speakers on the field so all players can clearly hear what's going on at all times with a singular narrative. This is common in the NFL but ASU previously had a more disjointed approach with multiple coaches teaching different segments of returns and coverages across a full field. This still exists to some degree, but with much greater clarity.

What's being done now is more efficient and less likely to have misunderstanding among players. Multiple team sources and players have also told us that the team's daily pre-practice special teams meetings were significantly more cohesive in the spring following Slocum's addition.

Previously all of the special teams disciplines were often covered in a single day in a short 20 minute meeting and that led to information overload with some players. Now, teaching is more segmented, often just one or two disciplines being taught in the same 20 minutes, and as a result special teams more closely matches the structural precision found in the rest of the team's position meetings and all of its scheduling. Players have a better understanding of their roles and are less overwhelmed with information.

There have also been a number of new on-field skill development teaching methods that have been implemented to instill proper technique and a better understanding of strategy. So for example, a clearer understanding of maintaining lane discipline in kickoff coverage, or keeping structural integrity with blocking on kick returns.

Slocum has also made some changes with ASU's strategy on coverage and return units. Without providing more specifics, this involves aspects including the number and location of players on returns and kickoff coverage. Specifically, we saw a more structurally sound kickoff return unit that could improve its capability in 2015. Some of the catastrophic redundancy mistakes that enabled big returns versus ASU's kickoff coverage units should also be less frequent with the improved lane integrity we saw in spring practices.

There are some personnel improvements that could also shape ASU's special teams to a large degree, especially the development of punter Matt Haack in the spring. Slocum worked with Haack on getting his drop more consistent and the results in the spring were pretty dramatic. Haack looked like one of the most improved players on the ASU roster. His consistency was substantially improved. Last year Haack averaged a modest 43.3 yards with just four touchbacks. Those numbers are likely to improve this year. Walk-on long snapper Michael Fraboni has looked like a very good addition. He's gotten the ball back accurately and with pace better than we've seen in recent years.

ASU has another potential weapon on special teams, as sophomore running back Kalen Ballage looked electric as a kickoff returner in the spring. Slocum had some nice set ups that take advantage of Ballage's elite speed and open field elusiveness for such a big-framed player, at 222 pounds.

The biggest remaining questions from a personnel standpoint include who will win the punt return job. The most likely options here are walk-on Jacom Brimhall, junior running back De'Chavon Hayes, senior wide receiver D.J. Foster, and perhaps junior wide receiver Tim White. Athletically, Hayes is a superior option, but he wasn't reliable in the spring. Brimhall is short and quick, with a low center of gravity and a tendency to avoid on-center contact from tacklers. If Hayes or White can emerge here, it would be a big development.

Another aspect that will have to be closely monitored is how well ASU does on kickoffs. It's likely that walk-on John O'Brien from Cisco Junior College in Texas will handle the kickoff duties. The last couple years, ASU often didn't have enough of a combination of depth and hangtime with the kickoffs from Alex Garoutte, and that's important for starting field position.

We'll see how all of these special teams units and personnel shape up as practice gets underway in about a week.


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