SunDevilSource: The contrast we've seen with special teams (at Arizona State) has been significant from the time before you arrived measured against what we saw in the last year or two. How do you assess what your groups were able to accomplish, just having a senior All-American kicker in Zane Gonzalez who won the Groza Award and a senior punter Matt Haack, who did very good, and a senior return man in Tim White, and overall?
Shawn Slocum: "Well, number one, I think those three guys were instrumental and did a great job with their development over the last two years. Really it's no different than offense or defense, it's about structure and organization and skill development, having a plan. I think the improvement was the result of those things and a commitment starting with Todd Graham to be good on special teams."
SunDevilSource: With Zane, you could make a strong case he's the best kicker of all time in college football. What was it like having an opportunity to coach a guy like that?
Slocum: "It was rewarding as a coach because Zane does a great job taking coaching. I think he'll be a guy who will continue to improve and moving on into his professional career, someone who can be a very solid kicker in the NFL."
SunDevilSource: You've coached at that level. How does he measure up to some of the best guys you've worked with and seen?
Slocum: "Right in the middle of them. I think Zane is one of those guys."
SunDevilSource: When you say he takes to coaching well, what's that like working with him on a day to day basis and absorbing and executing what you're asking and building toward?
Slocum: "Number one, I think he's very talented. But number two, I think he was very motivated to improve. Day to day the lines of communication were very clear. He did a very good job of communicating back to me. It's not always about the coach just dictating. It's about a communication process and especially in that position because it's unique to this game."
SunDevilSource: Is there anything you can remember that you fine-tuned with him that you were then very happy with as it evolved?
Slocum: "Well there are really two parts to it. There's the set up and then there's executing the technique, actually striking the ball. One of the things he did was improve his set up and that helped him with his consistency. And I think he's still got some improvement out in front of him in terms of the striking the ball properly all the time. He was very consistent for us this year. What happens is when you get in the NFL, it's not like you stop playing in November. The last week of November and four weeks of December and the playoffs, those things make it a lot harder in the NFL and are usually cold-weather climates with bad, adverse conditions. That's going to be his biggest challenges."
SunDevilSource: With Haack, just a significant amount of improvement from when he arrived at ASU to where he finished his career at, and with two years working with you. That's something you must be extremely pleased by and proud of him and what he was able to accomplish. What do you think were the main elements that really enabled that?
Slocum: "There's a number of things when you start talking about technique in punting the football. I'll say that I think he just fine tuned and again we communicated well and tried to put him in favorable positions to execute."
SunDevilSource: I was struck by Tim White out there fielding punts at points during that season when he wasn't able to even play on offense due to his health. That's pretty rare. Have you ever seen or coached a guy with that type of situation?
Slocum: "Well in college football a lot of times the types of balls you get, you have enough space to make determinations about fair catching the ball or try to return it. When he did return it he typically had space in front of him so he didn't have to -- it's not like catching a slant and there are two defensive backs on you. So sometimes the game situations can allow you do that."
SunDevilSource: I should ask about Mitchell Fraboni, a guy who is one of the best long snappers from a talent standpoint we've probably seen around here at ASU since Brian Jennings about 20 years ago. Does he have that ability to project to the NFL?
Slocum: "You're talking about Brian Jennings of the 49ers and I had a chance to take him to the Pro Bowl. I coached the Pro Bowl with Andy Lee (punter) and Phil Dawson (kicker). The snappers are not voted in so the coach on the AFC or NFC picks a snapper. He can't take his own so he has to take another guy. So it was 2012 or 2013 and I had a chance to take Brian and it was good. Anyway, I see Mitchell being a guy, if he continues to develop, could be a guy who gets a shot in the NFL. He's got great velocity. We've got to improve the ball location from a consistency standpoint and stay healthy and keep going."
SunDevilSource: With the accuracy, what are you working on there?
Slocum: "I think it's the follow through and I require them to block like they do in the NFL. A lot of college guys just snap and run down the field but he can block and he's an excellent cover guy, he can really run. So I think it's just a matter of continuing to evolve."
SunDevilSource: This year is kind of a reset button because you lose those three guys. So you've got Michael Sleep-Dalton, who is a different style with the rugby ability that has become so popular in football and you've got a highly rated kicker who is coming in, Brandon Ruiz. So what are your thoughts about how this is shaping up?
Slocum: "I think the nature of college football is to do the best you can with establishing a structure and how you operate, and then just moving forward. Players are going to change because the maximum time you're going to have them is four years. I've been here two. I knew this was coming. I think Sleep-Dalton is an excellent candidate to replace Matt. He's a very talented young man. He can punt the ball a number of different ways and that will be fun, with both legs. That gives us options. In regards to the snapping position, we're the same. With our returners, as good as Tim was for us, I look for us to have the potential to be even better with some of the young guys we've got on this team. They've got great speed. I look forward to that aspect. As far as the kicker we've got John O'Brien who is already here and all he does is just make them in practice. He's got a strong leg, that's one of the reasons we added him. Also we're adding Brandon Ruiz, who I think is an excellent candidate. I really look forward to working with him. I expect we'll lose a little bit in experience, but I expect our overall production to be a little better, for what it's worth. Now take that with a grain of salt and it's hard to say that with Zane being the Lou Groza Award winner and everything he accomplished. But I think big picture wise, our players know more about our system now, and some of our guys who are cover guys are back and so we'll just be better in that regard. We're going to be very talented in the specialists, the skill positions there, and I really look forward to it."
SunDevilSource: The kickoff component is a huge thing and the percentage of touchbacks that you had probably was best in the country or right there over two years. So what do you think about Ruiz or O'Brien in that regard?
Slocum: "Well I've seen John and one of the reasons we got him is because when I got here somebody said Zane couldn't kick off. So we signed John but Zane ended up having a couple really good years kicking off. John is very well capable. Brandon kicked 95 percent of his kickoffs were touchbacks. I could count on Zane to do it. There were times we intentionally did not do it and of the two that were returned against us, I wish we would have kicked touchbacks there."
SunDevilSource: So when you start spring who will be the guys competing for the punt and kick return options?
Slocum: "We've got a number of them. You can start with Kalen Ballage. He's been a returner here and was involved in that for some years. I think you'll see N'Keal Harry compete there and two new guys who will be factors are John Humphrey and Ryan Newsome. Chase Lucas, he's working hard at it. Kyle Williams is a potential. He's really good with the ball in his hands. It'll be a lot of fun figuring that out."
SunDevilSource: NFL level they don't do the rugby stuff as much so that's probably different to you, having a guy like this, right? What's that like transitioning to that?
Slocum: "Schematically there are things we can do to take advantage of that. You don't have to get into the typical formation, the shield. If you look at last year's Indianapolis-Green Bay game, Indianapolis offset the punter and did something very similar on a number of kicks and Green Bay had zero returns in that game?
SunDevilSource: Do you think it will evolve more into the NFL?
Slocum: "I don't because of the rule. Nobody can leave except the two widest guys on a punt until the ball is kicked so that's why the rule in college is what it is. But there are ways, the line gets blurred in terms of technique and scheme. I've done things I would not have done in the NFL here in college, and vice versa.
SunDevilSource: So switching to position you coached defensively last year, Koron Crump was leading the Pac-12 in sacks until the very end. I didn't know if he was going to be able to be an every down player at Devil at his size but it seemed like he got better as the year progressed. What'd you see from him last year and moving forward?
Slocum: "He's a unique player. He's got a nice skill set as a linebacker and a pass rusher, plus some of the things he did on special teams out wide. He's tough. He's got, I think, very good instinct. I think he sees it. I think he grew as a player through the season and I look forward to seeing him do it again. We had to use him in a number of different roles last year. That's what our team needed and he responded."
SunDevilSource: Have you ever had a linebacker play gunner like that?
Slocum: "I've done it in the NFL. He's a little undersized right now but he's working out hard and gaining some weight and he'll be right in the mold of most of them."
SunDevilSource: When you add Doug Subtyl into the mix, a guy who probably had more sacks than anyone over a two-year period in junior college and is a talented pass rusher in his own right, how do you make that work to get them on the field together with your other top players?
Slocum: "In a word it's called subgroups. We can put a lot of talented guys out there on the field together, it's all about where you line them up. You've got to put JoJo Wicker into that mix, Tashon Smallwood, so we'll find a way to put him in there. We've got a couple other guys who can do it as well outside of the guys you mentioned. I would say Malik Lawal, he's got a good speed set. We've got to get Jalen Bates back, I think he's going to be a talented pass rusher."
SunDevilSource: Is Malik sort of like a Crump?
Slocum: "I think so, yeah. Somewhere in there."
SunDevilSource: Jalen is going to miss the spring, right?
Slocum: "Yeah, it's a medical decision. I think he's doing good but he has a ways to go with his rehab right now."
SunDevilSource: Are you going to be coaching the same position defensively?
Slocum: "We're working on that, we're working on that right now. I'll probably be involved with the outside guys. (New ASU defensive coordinator) Phil Bennett and I have worked before and it's actually what I coached when we were together before at Texas A&M in 1995 and 1996. Phil was the defensive coordinator and inside linebackers coach and I was the outside linebackers coach. It's about the big picture, putting it all together and how the staff functions best, that's what we'll do. When you get to this point in our careers, we've all coached and seen a lot. We'll work this thing out and make it good for our players." (interview was recorded February 20).
SunDevilSource: Will you dual-train like you did last year with Spur and Devil or not? I know that Bennett used lighter personnel with the Spur as more of a nickel corner the last couple years at Baylor?
Slocum: "The most important thing you have to do is figure out your personnel, and that's a moving target, it changes some every year. You don't go out there on Day 1 and say this is what it's going to be on Day 15. And then as guys go through the summer and training camp it'll continue to evolve and be another critical evaluation period and then I think that goes on throughout the season. It's like Koron, he could rush the passer and play outside and all of a sudden he is playing some on the inside. So it changes."
SunDevilSource: Doug Subtyl, what does he bring?
Slocum: "Well he brings, I think, really good pass rush ability and great effort. Now, he's behind a little bit in his physical conditioning and that process. He's a large, long guy. He's got the structure, the body type you want in that position. He's going to be a growth in progress I think the whole time he's here. He's talented and a fine young man and we're lucky to have him here."
SunDevilSource: I should ask about Alani Latu also, going into his senior year. I know he's really developed. What do you think his opportunity will be like moving forward?
Slcoum: "Yeah, A.J. is a guy who I think has good football instincts, good I.Q., and what we've got to decide is what he can do to help us the most, and in fact we had that conversation today."