Special teams errors have proved costly in defeats during the Graham era, so this season, ASU is once again exploring new approaches that may finally trigger success.
In the offseason, Graham hired new associate head coach Shawn Slocum to oversee all special teams units, and to fine-tune a phase of the game the program has struggled with in recent years. Slocum spent the previous six years as the special teams coordinator for the Green Bay Packers, and had worked as a consultant for the Sun Devils in the off-season to help address their issues. Ultimately Graham decided their existing relationship and the overall capability of Slocum was something he wanted to maximize.
Slocum’s hire means ASU will have its third different special teams coordinator in three seasons, after defensive coordinator Keith Patterson took charge last year, and former ASU assistant Joe Lorig led the units in 2013. Though frequent changes can sometimes force a steep learning curve on coaches and personnel alike, Graham admitted the knowledge Slocum brings to the table has been eye-opening even to him throughout camp.
"I feel great,” Graham said. “It's obviously been a transformation with coach (Slocum) coming in and taking over. Everything is not going to just be fixed overnight but I think we're headed in the right direction and we're in great hands. I've learned more about special teams in this camp than I knew, and I think had a decent knowledge of special teams."
One aspect of ASU’s special teams’ Slocum is hoping to jumpstart is the punt return unit, which ranked No. 120 in the nation a season ago with an average of 3.67 yards per return. The Sun Devils finished last in the Pac-12 conference in the category, and to complicate matters, their most successful returner, Kyle Middlebrooks (6.1 yards per return), graduated this offseason.
In searching for an answer, Graham and Slocum have turned to an unlikely source, sophomore running back Jacom Brimhall. As a walk-on, Brimhall received reps with the punt returners during practice last year, but this season, he sits atop the punt return depth charts for a few different reasons.
“A couple reasons, number one, he’s a very good catcher of the ball,” Slocum said of Brimhall. “Number two, he’s explosive and is very quick and I think he can be a playmaker there.
“He reminds me a little bit of (NFL player) Darren Sproles, he’s got some of those same qualities. It’s hard to get your hands on him in the open field and we’ve worked a number of other guys there as well, and we’ll have the ability to play a number of people there.”
Why is Brimhall a surprise candidate to win the punt return job? Up until Friday, the 5-foot-8 Mesa native wasn’t on scholarship, and he doesn’t have the same type of perceived upside of some of his speedier counterparts.
Nevertheless, Brimhall worked tirelessly to prepare the ASU defense as a member of the scout-team offense during practice last year, and in his spare time on the field, he bolstered his skillset and resourcefulness by fielding punts. For all of his work, Brimhall was rewarded with a scholarship on Friday.
“With everything last year, being on scout, we just wanted to give the scout team everything we could,” Brimhall said. “And this year, giving everything I have, as soon as he (Graham) said my name (announcing the scholarship), I just started crying, I couldn’t hold it, it was special.”
Though Graham called Brimhall’s name at the end of practice to award him the scholarship in front of his teammates, it wouldn’t be the last time ASU’s head coach mentioned Brimhall’s name that day.
In the continuing search for a more consistent punt returner, Graham singled out Brimhall to the media after practice as being among the candidates vying for a starting job.
“It’ll be Brimhall, or (junior running back) Gump (Hayes), or (senior wide receiver) D.J. (Foster), possibly (senior wide receiver) Devin (Lucien),” Graham said. “We’ve got four guys working there, (junior wide receiver) Tim White was working there. If we started and played today, it would probably be Gump or Brimhall. Brimhall being the most consistent, and Gump is a dynamic player, but we just have to make sure we get the deficiencies worked out.”
Graham cited one of the main reasons ASU has struggled nationally in terms of punt returns is the caliber of punters in the Pac-12. Still, ASU was the only team in the conference with an average of fewer than six yards per return, and the Sun Devils hurt their chances to improve that stat by only fielding a conference-low 15 punts.
“I think the hardest thing about the punt return game is the punters,” Graham said. “You’ve got punters in this league who do a great job with hang time, and then you’ve got a lot of guys who do a great job with the rugby kick. You’ve got to get the ball fielded first, but I will tell you, it has a lot to do with the guy returning the punt.”
By adding Slocum this offseason, Graham once again attempted to make special teams a top priority for the program by hiring a coach with an intense focus on details. And though it took some time to find him, the pair has discovered a punt returner who shares that same fierce desire to improve on special teams.
“I’m watching film of each punter that I’m going to go against so I’m taking it as serious as if it were like, the starting quarterback job in the national championship so it means everything to me and I’m going to just keep giving it everything I’ve got,” Brimhall said
While the return game offers the most glaring starting point for ASU to seek special teams improvement from a pure numbers standpoint, Graham and Slocum are committed to making strides in every facet of special teams.
One of the more striking examples of ASU’s pledge to boost its success levels on special teams is ensuring that no player is exempt from participating on special teams units. In the past, Graham has used stars like Will Sutton and Jaelen Strong on special teams units, and this year, ASU could use senior wide receiver D.J. Foster and senior cornerback Lloyd Carrington on coverage units.
Foster and Carrington are just a few examples of prominent skill position players who will likely see special teams action this season, and Slocum said the purpose of using ASU’s best players is straightforward.
“It’s about playing with our best players,” Slocum said. “Every play of the game is important because it’s either a direct scoring opportunity or an exchange in possession of the football and you’ve got the ball on offense or you’re on defense and trying to get it away.”
For Foster, Carrington, and others like them, it's also an audition. They'll likely have to make an impression on special teams in order to find their way on the field at the NFL level at the outset of their careers.
In 2014, ASU ranked seventh in the Pac-12 in kickoff coverage, while the Sun Devils averaged just 36.7 net yards per punt, despite having an average punt distance of more than 41 yards.
Slocum and Graham have both made comments about their expectations for ASU to improve its coverage units with first-team players on board, and Slocum said the coaching staff will monitor the amount of special teams reps each player takes.
ASU’s special teams struggles have been well documented throughout Graham’s time in Tempe, but this season, the Sun Devils are becoming more hyper-focused on ensuring special teams can become an advantage.
During special teams meetings such as the one media members were allowed to view on August 7, Slocum covers even the most minute details with extreme precision, focusing on landmark identification for players on coverage units and the mentality needed to execute open field tackling.
This teaching philosophy establishes no detail is left uncovered, and puts all players and coaches on the same page. That’s why it’s no surprise that even though Slocum inherited units without a great track record of success, he’s confident that the Sun Devils will make the changes necessary to run some of the best special teams’ units in the Pac-12.
There's been a significant improvement in the observed practice performance of ASU junior punter Matt Haack since Slocum arrived in the spring. The coach worked to make Haack's drop more reliable and he's developed a lot more consistency as a result. ASU finished sixth in the Pac-12 in net punting last season at 36.7 yards, but could move up in the category in 2015.
The Sun Devils also have a relatively reliable kicker returning, junior Zane Gonzalez. He was one of the strengths of ASU's special teams last season, as the team finished fourth in the conference in field goal conversions at .821 with Gonzalez making 22 of 27 attempts.
“My expectations are for us to play consistently and to cover the football well,” Slocum said. “To take care of the football in the return game as well. I mean, we’ve got a good football team, if we take care of our business, we should be right at the top.”