Since coming to Arizona State three seasons ago, special teams have been one of ASU head coach Todd Graham’s main causes of frustration.
From punt return, to punt coverage, to kick return coverage, to punts in general, ASU fans have voiced their displeasure over the years of the lack of progress made on special teams.
One of the more glaring examples of ASU’s special teams woes was in ASU’s loss to Texas Tech in the 2013 Holiday Bowl. After the game, Graham made the pledge he would play a “major” role in special teams and would deal with the problems “immediately.”
However, even after then-special teams coordinator Joe Lorig left the program, the 2014 season brought even more troubles for ASU. In March, Graham hired former Green Bay Packers special teams coach Shawn Slocum to be ASU’s new special teams coordinator.
Yet, despite the change in coaching, new methods of practicing, and new philosophies brought in by Slocum, the first game returns didn't match the effort expended, which Graham said amounts to twice as much time spent on special teams as in the past. Junior kicker Zane Gonzalez did a good job of putting the ball deep into the end zone on kickoffs, and the kickoff cover team also was solid. But the punt team was a totally different story.
Initially the Sun Devils looked to be on the right track in the spring and fall camp with clear progress by junior punter Matt Haack, but in Saturday’s 38-17 loss to Texas A&M, ASU failed to show an demonstrated overall improvement on a national stage.
“If you asked my opinion, that is as poorly as we've played on special teams and that's unacceptable,” Graham said at his Monday press conference. “A lot of that is guys just missed assignments and things like that, and there are some more -- probably what we're doing is a little bit more complex than what we've done in the past, and it's about us teaching it.”
Slocum said Tuesday he feels the new special teams schemes aren’t too complex for the players, but instead they just need to fine-tune some things to put players in the position where they can react and not have to think.
As a player, being accountable for their assignment is their one key role and as Slocum said, “it’s 11 men playing the game” and if one messes up, than a critical error can be exploited.
Penalties were especially glaring against the Aggies, with one roughing the punter penalty against redshirt freshman safety Coltin Gerhart, one running into the punter and one delay of game on the punt team called against ASU. Graham referred to the penalties as “uncharacteristic” and said the team was “undisciplined” and just played downright “poorly as we can play on punt and kickoff return.”
The biggest emblem of the critical errors made by the Sun Devils on special teams came when Scottsdale-native Christian Kirk smoked ASU for a 79-yard punt return touchdown early in the second quarter.
Like in years' past, the first sign of ASU’s special teams woes in Kirk’s touchdown sequence was the punting unit.
In a fourth and 3 situation in ASU’s fourth series of the game, Haack had to hurry his punt to get the ball off in time after Texas A&M brought pressure up the middle and sophomore long snapper Mitchell Fraboni missed an A-gap block to let a defender go almost untouched directly at Haack.
All game, Haack’s punts weren’t up to par from what they were in the spring or fall, but it wasn’t necessarily Haack’s fault, instead Slocum said it was mostly due to ASU’s lack of protection.
Haack had 10 punts on the night, averaging 42 yards per punt, which showed basically no measurable improvement from last season, when Haack averaged 41.4 yards per punt.
“Well they (Texas A&M) pressured us a lot,” Slocum said. “A couple times we were poor in protection and I think Matt (Haack) did a great job getting the ball off and we should have done a better job of protection.”
Regarding protection on the punt unit, Slocum said he felt like some of the players got tired in the game and they lost their focus, which caused mental lapses and the lack of protection.
“Protection was just all over the place,” Graham said. “We made a lot of errors there and had guys running in the backfield unblocked but they can't (block Haack's punts) because we're getting the ball off so fast, it's pretty hard to block it. I mean, on the punt return there was a center and nobody else. There was nobody over there, and that's not something that we should be doing.”
After Haack barely booted away the punt on fourth and 3, Kirk nabbed the ball for the Aggies and raced laterally about 20 yards before heading upfield. After ASU failed to set the edge on Kirk with Fraboni missing a diving tackle attempt at the 27-yard line, Kirk was off to the races.
Sophomore running back Demario Richard was beat, sophomore tight end Raymond Epps couldn’t get off his block, junior safety James Johnson wasn’t in the right position and sophomore linebacker D.J. Calhoun wasn’t able to turn on the afterburners to reach Kirk in time.
Haack was actually the only ASU player to have legitimate shot at Kirk after the initial missed tackle by Fraboni, but he too could only watch as Kirk celebrated his 79-yard touchdown.
Last season, ASU gave up two punt returns for touchdowns and its opponents averaged 13.1 yards per return, with a long of 68 yards.
A big point of emphasis coming into the season was having the team’s “best” players on special teams to help the group as a whole be more efficient and dependable. That didn’t happen Saturday night on the punt return unit with senior cornerbacks Lloyd Carrington and Kweishi Brown not taking the field and Graham voiced his displeasure.
“We thought we could have some other guys that could get it done there, and you've got to put your best guys on there,” Graham said. “You've got to have Lloyd and Kweishi, and none of those guys were on there. Obviously, we didn't do that because we didn't want to put them on there. We thought the other people could handle it, but we made some critical errors.”
Slocum said even though Carrington and Brown didn’t play last week, they are still involved with special teams and ASU will continue to develop and figure out how best to utilize them come game day.
On Saturday, ASU also worked with how to best utilize junior running back De’Chavon Hayes with sophomore running back Kalen Ballage not suiting up for Saturday’s game due to what SunDevilSource reported as mononucleosis.
Not only was Hayes thrown into the No. 2 running back role for ASU on offense, but he also became the main punt and kick returner against the Aggies, which is where Ballage likely would have started.
Slocum said Ballage was definitely part of the plan on special teams and due to his inability to play, the team had to make a quick adjustment and he thought Hayes did particularly well with ball security on the returns.
“I definitely knew I was going to do punt return and kick return (coming into the season),” Hayes said. “Throughout the fall camp that’s what I’ve been practicing on, but coming into that game I was second-string punt return. They (coaches) told me the day before that I would be starting so like I said, when my name was called, I just stepped up and tried to make plays for my team.”
Hayes had three returns on the night and averaged 7.0 yards per return. Statistically that's nearly twice better than the 3.7 punt return yards on average ASU mustered last season with former ASU safety Damarious Randall and former ASU running back Kyle Middlebrooks handling most of the punt return duties.
Last year, ASU didn't produce a single punt-return of 20 yards or more. With Hayes at the helm until Ballage’s apparent return, it is still up in the air if that stat will continue through this season.
However, Hayes is fairly confident in his abilities in addition to the special teams unit’s ability to bounce back this week against Cal Poly on Saturday at Sun Devil Stadium.
“Just some key mistakes were made,” Hayes said. “But other than that, for this game, we are just going to come out better, better details, better adjustments and I already know for a fact we’re going to take a couple to the house.”
Despite being suspended for Saturday’s game against Texas A&M, redshirt freshman linebacker Ismael Murphy-Richardson was taking reps at Devil backer in a white defensive jersey with the second team during team period, behind senior Antonio Longino.