Seniors Matt Haack, Zane Gonzalez set special teams bar high

ASU senior specialists Matt Haack and Zane Gonzalez helped ASU become the only Pac-12 school with both its kicker and punter on preseason award watch lists.

Preseason watch lists may not carry a lot of weight during the season, but for Arizona State’s special teams unit, they’re a sign of clear-cut leadership and continued progression. 

With two seniors leading special teams units this season, ASU is the only Pac-12 school with both its kicker and punter on preseason award watch lists.  

Senior punter Matt Haack was named to the preseason watch list for the 2016 Ray Guy Award and senior placekicker Zane Gonzalez was named to the Lou Groza Award watch list for the third straight year. 

“I’ve been on the list before, but I just want to win it,” Gonzalez said. “It doesn’t mean nothing unless I win the award. It’s one of those things I really want to win this year.”

Former ASU kicker Thomas Weber is the only Sun Devil to win the Groza Award as he accomplished the feat in 2007.

Gonzalez enters 2016 as the FBS active leader in scoring at 9.9 points per game as well as in field goals per game with 1.87. He only needs 16 field goals to break the FBS record for career field goals held by Florida State’s Dustin Hopkins at 88.

“It definitely is one of those things in the back of my head, but along with the award it has to be a team effort,” Gonzalez said. “Me and Matt are definitely some of the leaders and (long snapper) Mitchell Fraboni and stuff like that. We both take charge and we are both on the watch list and stuff like that so I think we have a lot of respect from people in the locker room.”

In addition to field goal duty, Gonzalez also took over kickoffs last year and had 66 touchbacks on 88 attempts, averaging 64.2 yards per kickoff.

“Zane was outstanding last year on kickoffs and he’s made tons of field goals,” ASU special teams coach Shawn Slocum said. “Field goals per game, he led the nation, so he’s deserved to be on that (preseason list). I think he’s challenged to work on consistency and get a better percentage for makes and if he does that, I think he’s a guy in line to play in the NFL.”

Working on his set up and stance this fall, Gonzalez said Slocum has helped him by being “very straight up” with his advice and giving critiques on even the slightest of error.

While improving his own game, Gonzalez is also getting accustomed to working with younger players along the protection team on the field goal unit. However, with seniority on his side, Gonzalez accepts the role as a leader of the group.

“Being a senior is a completely different feeling,” Gonzalez said. “You walk into that locker room and you are older than everybody. I remember freshman year, looking up to Will Sutton and being kind of intimidated. Now you see some of the younger guys, like Kareem Orr, and you see them start to shine and grow and you feel like they are your little brothers.”

Gonzalez is one of five Pac-12 players named to the Groza Award preseason watch list that includes Cal’s Matt Anderson, Utah’s Andy Phillips, Washington’s Cameron Van Winkle, and Oregon’s Aidan Schneider.

While Gonzalez is up against four other Pac-12 players, Oregon State punter Nick Porebski is the only other Pac-12 representative on the Ray Guy Award the preseason watch list with Haack.

This is the first time Haack has been on the preseason watch list after making it on the midseason award list for the past two years.

“Matt has got a big leg,” Slocum said. “Huge leg. As good as I’ve see just about, including some pro guys so if he continues to work with consistency he’s a guy that can do the same thing.”

In 2015, Haack was named the Ray Guy Punter of the Week for his performance in ASU’s 38-23 win against then-No.7 UCLA in Week 5. He punted eight times for 345 yards for an average of 43.1 yards per punt and landed five within the 20-yard line.

Haack’s ability to flip the field allowed the Sun Devils not only to pull off an upset at the Rose Bowl, but also shake off some special teams criticism after the first four games of the season.

Haack finished 2015 with 74 punts for 3,186 yards, averaging 43.1 yards per punt. He booted 32 punts inside the 20-yard line and 19 for 50-plus yards.

“Biggest thing for me is staying straight,” Haack said. “Staying short, straight and smooth and keeping my drop straight. There was a few times last year where I hit a bad punt and you would go to the film and say, ‘Oh it’s your drop right here or you are too long on your steps.’”

His steady improvement since coming to ASU is eminent. In 2014, Haack finished with 53 punts for 2,296 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.

In 2013, he was sharing time with Alex Garoutte, and averaged only 38.2 yards per punt on 16 attempts.

“To me it’s night and day,” Haack said. “I remember getting here and pretty much feel like playing for the first time. It’s crazy to look back and each year I seem more comfortable back there, see more things that help me out. The biggest thing is the consistency and for me, finding little tools to help my particular technique.”

One of the biggest measurements of Haack’s success is his hang time and get off time--both stats that are recorded at each practice. When Haack was first introduced to ASU’s special teams, he was used to the roll-out, rugby-style punt, but now with a change to a more traditional style, he’s seeing his get off time get faster and more efficient.

Haack’s hang time has also improved. Around four seconds is something “you could live with,” according to Haack, but he estimates his goal is in the 4.3 to 4.5-second range.

“If I just went out there and tried to kick the ball as far as I could, the returner could catch it and our unit could still be 20 yards away and that takes away from the net of the whole team,” Haack said.

News and Notes

  • Senior linebacker Salamo Fiso was dressed out for practice Wednesday after arriving to Tuesday's session late in a hoodie and shorts. Graham said Tuesday Fiso pulled his groin, and after going through the warm-up line, Fiso worked out at Muscle Beach.
  • Sophomore wide receiver Jalen Harvey and junior college transfer Maurice Chandler both remained in green jerseys Wednesday, but both players participated in all drills open to the media except for ASU's 'W' tackling drill.
  • Freshman wide receiver N'Keal Harry took first team reps with the offense during an 11-on-air period opened to the media. Wednesday's practice was the first time the media has seen Harry take multiple first team reps in a practice. Junior wide receiver Ellis Jefferson had been playing in front of Harry, but did not practice during the 11-on-air period at all.
  • Junior defensive back Marcus Ball was out of a walking boot on Wednesday, but wore a green jersey and did not participate in any individual drills. Ball suffered an injury during Monday's practice.
  • A day after Todd Graham called redshirt freshman pass rusher Malik Lawal a starter in third down situations, Lawal worked with the inside linebackers during individual drills. Lawal had been working with the ends and Devil backers group to this point in fall camp. 

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