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Q&A: Shawn Slocum on Arizona State special teams

We spoke with Arizona State special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum this week as he transitions to his second-year at the school.

SunDevilSource: Relative to your expectations, how did last season go on special teams as a whole?

Shawn Slocum: "We did some things that were productive, we did some things we need to do better. From a consistency standpoint, we need to improve. One of the things I look at is did we get better as the season went? I think we did get better in all things we did as the season went on, and that's a marker of production, probably with the exception of field goal consistency. So I thought that was good."

SunDevilSource: Does it make you feel better knowing you are returning your kicker, your punter, your long-snapper, Tim White, your return man on kickoffs and De'Chavon Hayes who did punt returns is back? Will that help continue your improvement in 2016?

Slocum: "Probably so. Having guys that have been productive helps and as you project moving forward. At the same time, competition will always be there. I think it's an open door always because of opportunity and players continue to perform. We'll never shut the door to opportunity and I want guys to know that and be aware that we're going to continuously push to be better, and if that means someone plays over someone that used to play, that's part of it."

SunDevilSource: With regard to the changes you implemented with kickoff cover, punt cover, punt return, kickoff return, from an schematic and execution standpoint, did we see the finished product of what you want to be in 2015, or was that more of a bridge to where you want to be?

Slocum: "The biggest transition was for me, because the college game is entirely different from the NFL game for a number of reasons. I think I improved as the season went on, therefore it made it easier on the players. I think our production will improve as we move forward because of my development."

SunDevilSource: So what are the changes that impact what you can do or are trying to do?

Slocum: "The time and rules of the game, that's really the big factors. The time element dictates how much you can give the players. The rules of the game affect what  you can do. What we do schematically isn't nearly as important as what we do fundamentally. Something I really believe in and say a lot is that you never use scheme as a crutch. This game is about blocking and tackling and it's really about hand to hand combat. That really won't change."

SunDevilSource: You said there's going to be continuing competition. So do you feel like Tim White is going to be the guy as a kickoff returner, is Matt Haack going to be the punter with a new punter coming in even though Michael Sleep-Dalton has a redshirt year. Are there spots that are very much up for grabs in the spring?

Slocum: "Well, we'll sit down as a coaching staff. We sit down often as a coaching staff to discuss personnel. That's especially true with special teams because you're drawing players from offense and defense to formulate those groups. That's something we'll always evaluate, as we did with the bowl game with Tim White returning punts. De'Chavon had done a great job catching the ball. Tim had been very explosive and we wanted to get the ball in his hands. So we adjusted somewhat. We'll do that at all positions. Right now, you have a punter, a snapper, a kicker, a returner all back and that's a great thing. 

SunDevilSource: And that long-snapper, Mitchell Fraboni, did a very good job last season, right? Is he an NFL prospect as you see it?

Slocum: "He's very good. I think he definitely has NFL potential, yes."

SunDevilSource: You signed Sleep-Dalton, a former Australian Rules player who is in the mold of the Australian kickers who have done well in the college game including Tim Hackett at Utah who won the Ray Guy award. What do you think he brings to the table and what was the thought process behind adding him?

Slocum: "The guys that have come here after playing Australian Rules Football have changed the punting game, both in college and in the NFL. Michael can put with both feet, he can do a lot of things that present challenges for the opponent to prepare for. He's got a lot of talent, his coach back in Australia is a guy I am familiar with and has been a bridge to the NFL and the guys who have made it there. Michael played Australian Rules football at a minor league level. He's a very determined young man, wants to get a degree. ASU has the education he wants to get. At the same time he wants the opportunity to play professionally. We added him in part because he does have three years, he's got a redshirt year. Matt Haack, I see him as having excellent potential. I see him as having a great opportunity to punt professionally. He's got a huge leg, is growing every day as a punter, isn't close to accomplishing his potential as a punter."

SunDevilSource: "With Matt, he had a more consistent season. I know he re-tooled his drop and footwork some to help with that and you were a part in that. Where did you see the biggest improvement from when you started working with him?

Slocum: "I would say mentally. There are a lot of components to punting a football or kicking a football. A lot of mental and fundamental things. It's like riding a bicycle. You have to get on it the right way and execute those techniques and try to keep it simple. I thought he expected those techniques and has a better understanding of the game, which helps a player perform."

SunDevilSource: How about your kickoffs? You had a real weapon in Zane, it seemed like he was one of the best around, you had almost no returns against you?

Slocum: "He was one of the best in the country. To be able to kick the ball like that eliminates the return game. We talk about it a lot, it's really the kicker versus the returner. If he can eliminate the return game, you're playing to an advantage. When you get a touchback you give them the ball at the 25. From a coaching standpoint, I want to go down and tackle them on the 10 yard line. That's my aggression. At the same time you have to be practical, you have to be smart. You have to look at the statistics involved. You have these dynamic kickers in college. Their skill set may be far greater than the guys covering them. Just because of the size of your roster in college, a lot of times you're playing with young guys on the kickoff team. There are young men in this league that can change the game right away with a big return and now your defense is playing from behind. So a kicker who puts it out of the end zone eliminates or at least greatly reduces that threat."

SunDevilSource: So it's not really worth the risk to tinker with, often?

Slocum: "That's a game management decision. Pretty much all the time, unless there is wind, Zane is going to kick a touchback if that's what we want to do. Nine out of 10 times."

SunDevilSource: What do you think about Todd Graham's philosophy of playing your best players on specials at the college level? He's done that quite a bit. 

Slocum: "I think, if you truly want to be good, you do it. At the same time you have to be very smart with play count. You can't have one guy playing 80 plays on defense and 30 plays on special teams and then having a good young player sitting on the bench. At the same time, I don't think you want to risk your team's ability to win by saying, 'we're going to play all freshmen on special teams.' That's a losing proposition. It's a formula developed each year depending on all factors involved. As a coaching staff we have to evaluate that all off-season, all spring, all summer and through camp and then even week-to-week. What's going on with the health of the team? How's the production from Player A, Player B, Player C, all of that is evaluated on a daily basis during the season."

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