After self-inflicted wounds hampered Arizona State’s special teams play through its first four games of the season, the Sun Devils have fired back at its opponents in the last two weeks.
From ASU junior wide receiver Tim White providing a spark on kickoff returns to junior punter Matt Haack finding his stride and junior kicker Zane Gonzalez sending kickoffs to the back of the end zone, the Sun Devils’ special teams unit has slowly improved since the team’s lackluster performance against Texas A&M.
But, while the Sun Devils special teams’ trajectory looks to be on the up and up, on Saturday, they will face a Utah special teams unit that has never looked down.
Facing the No.4-ranked Utes (5-0) on Saturday at Salt Lake City, the Sun Devils will be going against the No. 1 punting team in the Pac-12 with senior punter Tom Hackett leading the charge and freshman punt returner Britain Covey leading the league with an average of 16.9 yards per return.
“Our whole deal is about desire and effort, and it shows up big time on special teams plays,” ASU head coach Todd Graham said Monday regarding his team’s special teams play.” I think (special teams coordinator coach Shawn) Slocum's done a great job of getting our guys to understand the importance of that and it will be very, very important this week because that's an area we have to win. We have to win special teams.”
Due to the pristine accuracy of Hackett – the defending Ray Guy Award winner for best punter in the country – he has booted 19 punts for 920 yards through five games and is averaging 48.9 yards per punt. For comparison, Haack is averaging 43.1 yards per punt for the Sun Devils.
“We are definitely preparing for them,” ASU junior punt returner De'Chavon Hayes said. “I watched film on them and he (Hackett) is one of those guys who, he’s an Australian punter, can do tricky things with the ball, so I’m just prepared.”
In the past two meetings between Utah and ASU, the games have been low scoring and true field position battles. While Utah lost both contests to ASU, Hackett had great success flipping the field against the Sun Devils with his rugby directional punting skills.
For the Sun Devils to be successful on Saturday, Hayes will especially have to make smart decisions when fielding Utah’s punts. Any miscues – like muffs or drops – could be the difference in determining the winner of the contest.
In ASU’s 2013 game against Utah, Hackett punted nine times for 455 yards, averaging 50.6 years per punt and a long of 70 yards. In ASU’s 2014 game against the Utes’, Hackett again excelled, booting eight punts for 377 yards – an average of 47.1 yards per punt.
Now on Saturday, with Hackett and Utah’s punt cover still a reliable strength, the Sun Devils will have to be equally effective when Haack takes the field. While ASU has yet to return a punt for a touchdown, Utah has returned two – the only team in the Pac-12 to achieve that feat.
Covey had the Utes’ first punt return for a touchdown on the season – a 77-yarder in the fourth quarter against Fresno State on Sept. 19. Covey’s return came right after Utes’ junior defensive back Cory Butler-Byrd had a 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. No other team in the Pac-12 has had a kickoff return for a touchdown.
“We’ve watched film and they have a pretty shifty guy out there (Covey) and like I said, with my speed I think I can be the one to make a play and swing momentum.” Hayes said.
But while Covey had his impressive straightforward punt return for a touchdown, Utah used trickery to their advantage against the Oregon Ducks on Sept. 26.
With less than two minutes left in the third quarter of Utah’s game against the Ducks at Autzen Stadium, Oregon punter Ian Wheeler booted the ball downfield towards Oregon’s sidelines, but after the snap, Covey drifted toward the left sideline, bringing the Ducks’ coverage team with him and allowing sophomore defensive back Boobie Hobbs to catch the punt on the other side of the field and go untouched 69 yards for a touchdown.
But besides Utah’s trickery and exceptional punt game, the Utes’ also have a reliable field goal kicker – junior Andy Phillips – who has made 7 of 7 field goals in the red zone this season and overall has made 8 of 11. Phillips was first-team all-league last season and though he has missed three this season, they have been all longer than 40 yards.
Combine Utah’s special teams efficiency and the Utes’ scoring abilities in the red zone, and it’s no wonder why the team has been exceeding expectations. Saturday, it might come down to which team will be able to maximize their opportunities in red zone in an expected low scoring battle.
So far this season, Utah has scored 20 out of 21 times in the red zone – good for No. 1 in the Pac-12. The Sun Devils have scored 23 out of 28 times and Gonzalez has made 7 of 9 field goals in the red zone.
However, while Gonzalez hasn’t been perfect in the red zone, he’s made four of his last five field goal attempts overall. In ASU’s 19-16 overtime win in 2014, Gonzalez hit the game-winning 36-yard field goal in overtime after making going 2 of 3 in regulation. His only miss was a 50-yard attempt.
With Gonzalez getting back on track with the field goal unit and White averaging 28.5 yards off kickoff returns – No. 1 in the Pac-12, ASU’s special teams have clearly shown strides of improvement, but the question is if it will be enough in a hostile environment on Saturday night.
“I feel like just me and Tim White with our speed and athleticism, we got a chance at making plays out there,” Hayes said. “So I think when we’re out there either of us can take of punt or a kick return to the house in the moment.”
Richard expected to play on Saturday
After practice Thursday, Graham reiterated his belief from earlier in the week that he expects ASU sophomore running back Demario Richard to play on Saturday against Utah.
“I expect him to play,” Graham told reporters. “He should have got reps today. Ask (offensive coordinator Mike) Norvell. Did he come over yet? He’ll tell you. I don’t know. I was on the other end obviously.”
Richard left last week’s game against Colorado on crutches and suffered what appears to be a right knee injury. In practice, Richard has been sporting a green non-contact jersey and a right knee brace.
Norvell said on Wednesday that Richard is “coming along” and that the team will “see where he’s at as the week continues to progress.”
However, while Richard is expected to play per Graham, it appears the ASU has made some necessary moves in case Richard is limited or doesn’t go. Hayes was back working with the running backs group after spending last week with the cornerbacks, but was still sporting his white defensive jersey.
After practice Thursday, Hayes said his role this week is to “make plays both ways playing offense and defense,” and is planning to have a “big role” on the offense this week.
But even with that said, Hayes believes Richard will be ready for Saturday’s game.
“You know I think Demario will be fine,” Hayes said. “I think when it comes down to it, you still want to make sure all the running backs are on the same page and everybody knows what they’re doing, but like I said, I think he’s pretty ready.”