ASU specialists face tough challenge

Arizona State head coach Todd Graham said the Sun Devils are replacing the two best specialists he's ever coached in kicker Zane Gonzalez and punter Matt Haack.

Of the four players Arizona State placed on the Pac-12's First and Second-Team All-Conference teams in 2016, two were specialists.

Though the Sun Devils' offense struggled to move the ball at times in 2016 and the defense failed to contain the vast majority of conference opponents, ASU was able to hang its hat on the play of its special teams units thanks in large part to the nation's best kicker, Zane Gonzalez, and one of the conference's best punters, Matt Haack.

While the Sun Devils haven't practiced special teams in any periods open to the media this spring, ASU head coach Todd Graham acknowledged the specialists who do replace Gonzalez and Haack in 2017 are following players with impressive legacies.

"Huge shoes, obviously we graduated the two best kickers, the best punter and the best kicker I've ever coached. Ever," Graham said. "And arguably our kicker is about is as good as whoever has played the game. So Brandon Ruiz and (Michael) Sleep-Dalton are guys who have big shoes to fill, but we've got a lot of confidence in those guys." 

After becoming the second Lou Groza Award winner in ASU's program history this season, Gonzalez will give way to Brandon Ruiz, an incoming freshman from Williams Field High (Gilbert) who was considered one of the top kicking prospects in the country for the Class of 2017. With Ruiz set to arrive this fall, walk-on John O'Brien is the only kicker on ASU's roster this spring.

The Sun Devils are able to work with and train Haack's replacement this spring, as junior Michael Sleep-Dalton is expected to step in take over in that role. Sleep-Dalton was a member of ASU's 2016 signing class, but redshirted last fall while Haack handled the punting duties.

Sleep-Dalton will follow in the footsteps of one of the most efficient punters in the Pac-12 last season, as Haack punted 66 times with an average of 43.9 yards per punt and a long of 76 yards.

It's unlikely the media will view any special teams work prior to ASU's spring game on April 15, but the Sun Devils do have a pair of closed scrimmages over the next few weeks and can evaluate their special teams units in those settings. 

After Friday's practice, the sixth of the spring for ASU, Graham said the Sun Devils' installation process on both sides of the ball is continuing to roll along. Following most of the Sun Devils' spring sessions, Graham has commented on the explosiveness of new offensive coordinator Billy Napier's unit, and that held true on Friday.

"Good day today, I tell you I thought our guys competed well today, we got a lot of install in, lots of explosive plays," Graham said. "Last practice offense won, today the defense won, but lots of good work."

The Sun Devils' head coach is entering his sixth year with the program, and has consistently highlighted the importance of continuing to build upon the culture his players and coaching staff has established at ASU over time. On Friday, Graham said the main focus for the Sun Devils this spring is approaching each day with their goals in mind, and working at a high level to achieve those goals. 

"I think every coach, every player, we have weekly goals and we have seasonal goals which will be for spring ball so the key is just getting better every day and giving your best. I don't want anybody with good attitude or good effort, I want your best. I like how our staff is demanding that and I like how our players are responding." 

News and notes

  • No new players wore green non-contact jerseys Friday, but the same quintet of players who wore green jerseys on Wednesday donned them again. Sophomore quarterback Bryce Perkins, sophomore offensive lineman Cade Cote, senior defensive back Marcus Ball, junior cornerback Kareem Orr and junior defensive back Das Tautalatasi all remain in green.
  • Sophomore quarterback Brady White, freshman running back Eno Benjamin, sophomore defensive lineman Jalen Bates, senior wide receiver Cameron Smith and junior tight end Jay Jay Wilson were non-participants in Friday's practice.
  • Redshirt freshman cornerback Chase Lucas was a full participant in practice Friday after working off to the side of drills earlier in the week.
  • Senior Christian Hill worked with ASU's offense for the second consecutive practice. Hill spent the first portion of the spring working with the defense, but when ASU began introducing red zone concepts on Wednesday, Hill transitioned to the offensive side of the ball. The former junior college transfer played on offense in ASU's "Sparky" formation in 2016. 

Sun Devil Source Top Stories