Still fired up after Arizona State’s 38-23 win against then-No. 7 UCLA on Saturday, ASU head coach Todd Graham’s booming voice cut through the weak murmur inside the Verde Dickey Dome following his team’s Tuesday practice.
Entering the post-practice huddle, Graham distinctly let out an animated shout: “That special teams was big!”
Referring to ASU’s vastly improved special teams play against the Bruins, Graham followed his declaration to the team by heaping praise on junior punter Matt Haack, who had a career-best five of his eight punts inside the 20-yard line on Saturday and won the Pac-12 Special Teams Player of the Week.
First-year ASU special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum also earned the CoachingSearch.com Special Teams Coordinator of the Week.
“Our guys, in this game man, played as hard as any team I’ve ever had and especially on special teams,” Graham said to reporters following Tuesday’s practice. “And that’s where we challenged them. If you need to rest, rest on offense or defense, not on specials. We played 41 special teams plays. That’s a lot. Take special teams out of the equation, total different game.”
Through its first four games of the season, ASU’s special teams unit was being criticized as one of the weakest areas of the team. Against UCLA, it was possibly its strongest.
One of the biggest emblems of ASU’s special teams development since the start of the season came in the form of a much-improved Haack and his ability on Saturday to flip the field.
In addition to his success booting the ball inside the 20-yard line, Haack finished with 345 yards for an average of 43.1 yards per punt. Specifically, his final punt of the game was a big reason for a Sun Devil victory.
With ASU leading 29-23 with just under five minutes left in the fourth quarter, Haack kicked a 46-yard punt all the way down to UCLA’s 1-yard line. Backed up, ASU held the Bruins to only four yards on their ensuing drive and UCLA snapped the ball out of the end zone on a punt attempt for their second safety of the night.
“It felt good coming off my foot and I watched the ball off my foot so that was a good feeling,” Haack said about the 46-yard punt. “I saw it go up and heading right and that’s what we call a ‘sideline right’ and coach was telling me the whole game to kick it out of bounds and away from the returner so that’s what I was trying to do and as it went up there and bounced, I kind of saw it and it was kind of inside. I was trying to kick it out to begin with, but I was just praying I would get the roll.”
Haack had been under scrutiny from Sun Devil fans after a poor showing early in the season, but with a little change in his technique, Haack said he is looking to get back on track.
Last year, Haack finished with 53 punts for 2296 yards for an average of 43.3 yards per punt. He had 17 punts inside the 20-yard line and 14 punts that he booted for 50-plus yards.
“I was having a tendency to creep my eyes up a little early the last few games, so I really focused on getting my eyes down and getting my drop straight and then just playing with emotion,” Haack said.
Fueling his emotion was no other than Graham, whom Haack said came up and yelled at him during the UCLA game and challenged him to play with emotion and show more passion on the field.
But Haack isn’t the only player on the field during punts. ASU’s punt protection has vastly improved since its sloppy outing against Texas A&M in the Sun Devils’ season opener. Against the Aggies, Haack was seemingly rushed on a majority of his punts due to a lack of protection along the front line.
Against UCLA, Haack had time to properly execute his drop and it showed in the quality of his punts. Haack said he attributes some of his success to sophomore long snapper Mitchell Fraboni, who has been snapping the ball to him quickly and with proper placement.
“I think we were poor with protection at the A&M game and Matt did a great job getting the ball off,” Slocum said. “The punts weren’t very good, but they could have been blocked. Most guys would have gotten the punt blocked, but Matt is quick so he got the ball out. We improved our protection quite a bit.”
Haack furthered Slocum’s claim and said the Sun Devils’ blocking and cover scheme on the punting unit really “puts other teams in a pickle” and has been the catalyst of ASU’s recent successes on the unit.
Going back to early in the season, ASU’s punt cover team was prominently put under fire after Texas A&M freshman wide receiver Christian Kirk torched the Sun Devils in ASU’s season opener. Kirk had two punts returns for 82 yards, with a long of 69 yards that went for a touchdown with 12:51 left to play in the second quarter.
But the punt cover issues didn’t stop there. Against USC, sophomore dual-threat Adoree Jackson returned two punts for 53 yards, with a 45-yard return in the third quarter that gave USC starting field position at ASU’s 19-yard line.
However, Saturday against the Bruins, ASU’s punt cover team was able to fix its mistakes and keep UCLA’s elusive returners in check.
“I thought in the UCLA game, our punt coverage was solid,” Slocum said. “Matt did a great job with the punt locations. Going back to the USC with Adoree, we had poor lane control and the same thing against A&M, but it all fits together. You can’t cover what you don’t punt so the protection has got to be there and the punts got to be there. It all works together.”
UCLA previously had a lot of success in the punt return game with senior wide receiver Devin Fuller controlling most of the punt return duties, but on Saturday, Fuller didn’t even get a chance to run out the ball due to Haack’s booming punts. Prior to playing ASU, Fuller averaged 14.6 yards per punt return.
While UCLA struggled to return punts and mostly kickoffs – besides one 57-yard return by Fuller – ASU had one of, if not the best kickoff return game of its season this far.
Providing the much-needed spark was ASU junior wide receiver Tim White, who had three kickoff returns for 129 yards and a long of 63 yards. His impressive 63-yard return set up ASU’s first – and White’s only – touchdown of the night with 1:21 left to go in the first quarter.
In his 63-yard return, White initially fumbled the kickoff, but after recovering, he used his linear speed to go 63 yards downfield and allow ASU’s offense to get to work at UCLA 31-yard line.
“He’s good player, good runner, he’s tough,” Slocum said about White. “He loves the game, he played 100 snaps the other day and he wanted about 30 more so I’ve been impressed with him.”
With ASU’s punting and kickoff unit finally starting find its potential, surprisingly one of the only flawed aspects of the special teams unit is junior kicker Zane Gonzalez.
Going into the season, it was assumed Gonzalez would be a reliable asset for the Sun Devils, making 22 out of 27 field goals last year with a long of 49 yards.
However, prior to ASU’s game against UCLA, Gonzalez was 5 for 8 on field goals on the season after missing a 28-yard attempt against Cal Poly and both a 47-yard attempt and 52-yard attempt against USC.
Against the Bruins, Gonzalez missed another field goal, this time a 44-yard field goal with 9:07 left to play in the first quarter.
If Gonzalez did score, the field goal would have put the Sun Devils up 5-0. While the missed field goal didn’t seem like a big deal in the first quarter, it could have been a desirable cushion for ASU once the Bruins stormed back and cut the Sun Devils’ lead down to six points with 9:19 left in the fourth quarter.
Slocum said Gonzalez has been in the right frame of mind and focused in every game, it’s just his execution that has not been up to par.
“He’s made mistakes from a technique standpoint,” Slocum said. “Against UCLA, he had a good ball to start off inside the uprights, it faded to the right and it’s going to happen sometimes, but he’s working hard at his technique.”
Overall, coaching special teams at ASU has been a learning process for Slocum and lately he said he’s been more adept to the players and they’ve been more adept to what he wants from a scheme standpoint. Keeping it simple is one of Slocum’s big takeaways moving forward.
“I tell you, coach is really dong a good job,” Graham said of Slocum. “It’s starting to pay off, the things that we’ve worked on. The biggest thing is taking care of the football. There still were some scary plays where the ball hit one of our guys going down the field. You should stop covering 15 yards from the returner. Just some things like that, we just got to clean up.”