Q&A with Coach Tom Osborne Part I

ASU's punting came under heavy criticism in 2005, and overshadowed a spectacular return and kickoff game. In part one of this exclusive DevilsDigest interview, Osborne talks candidly about all four units of the Sun Devils' special teams and the various reasons for the failures and successes of each of its components.

DevilsDigest: Coach, let's start by reviewing the two players in your position groups who signed in the 2006 class.

Tom Osborne: TE Lance Evbuomwan - "He's a very young a player, who played only two years of football. He played most of his senior year at 16 years of age. He has a big basketball background. He has humongous hands and can really catch the ball. He has a lot of learning curve ahead of him, but he did catch 54 passes and 13 touchdowns. The guy is very productive and we're excited to have him."

P Jonathan Johnson – "He's a kid that has a very good get-off and hang time. Didn't punt that much because his team was that good (smile). He's one of those guys that doesn't have astronomical averages, but he's very consistent. Very athletic kid – he wrestled and ran track in high school."

DD: The team's punting game was much maligned in 2005. How would you evaluate that aspect of the special teams from the beginning until the end of the season?

TO: "In 2004 we didn't cover punts worth a lick, and there were numerous reasons. Low flat kicks with no hang time, outside guys weren't able to make plays in the open field…so we spent the whole off-season saying: ‘we're still gonna get a flat punt, we're still gonna have the same guys – we don't have free agency or a draft, how will we be able to cover punts better?' Well, after the whole off-season, going over every play, we came up with doing the shield punt, which is the biggest trend in college football right now. So we did that half the time and the other half we did our generic spread formation."

"In the LSU game, the punter had the option to run it or punt it, and we didn't execute it right and it gets blocked for a touchdown. People blame the formation and it had nothing to do with the formation. It was like an offensive of play that breaks down from a protection or a route standpoint. Let's not forget that the blocked punt against Oregon wasn't a shield punt. So to put all the blame on the shield punt is invalid."

"We continued to do both the shield and regular spread. People forget that the shield punt against USC was awesome for us. We punt to Reggie Bush, a Heisman Trophy winner, three times, and he gains 13 yards the whole game. It worked to our advantage that day, because it gave us great coverage and protection advantages. Then we get into the Stanford game, and we get two punts blocked. The punter catches the ball at 15 yards and the guy that blocks it at seven and he's not running forward. When that happens, it doesn't mater what formation you run. However, getting to that point, we felt that our players were losing confidence in the shield formation. When we went out there (in the shield punt formation) guys were all puckered up. The whole group didn't have it…when you send out the kickoff team, punt return, kick return - those guys proved to be the best in the country and they have tremendous confidence."

"So after the Stanford game we were forced to make a change, so we can help our football team. We have done and continue to do forever everything humanly possible to help our team win. Whether it's changing the formation or playing the backup trainer if he has eligibility left…our guys lost confidence in the shield formation for whatever reason. Some people blame it on the outside forces of media, Internet, etc. So from that time on we changed to the spread formation, and everybody in the world kept on rushing and rushing. Some teams we played brought it (the rush) every single time."

"The difference was that we were forced to make a change at punter. As much as we love Chris MacDonald, and he's one of the greatest guys on our football team, it's no different than any other position – a tailback fumbles too much for example, you have to make a change. Jesse Ainsworth gets off the ball very fast, and gets the ball up with height. Teams couldn't come close to blocking punts, but the trade-off was Jesse isn't a punter by nature, so we had two shanks. His statistics aren't going to be glaring, because he punted a tremendous number of punts into the short field – where try to get the ball out of bounds in the 20-yard zone or have the opponent catch it there. There were a lot of fair catches, so there weren't a lot of punts returned against Jesse."

"So this is something that we'll continue to evaluate and continue to get better. As a coach it's hard to make that change. It's just like who's gonna play quarterback next year? When we made the change, whether getting away from the shield punt or changing the punter, or a combination of both - you could see the confidence back in our punt team, and in the last five games we didn't have any balls returned against us and no blocks, and again, everyone was rushing us."

DD: As you mentioned, the other three aspects of the special teams ranked very high in the national standings. How would you assess those areas?

TO: "We play 300 plays on special teams, and we have five plays where people want to hang me. Four blocked punts and a blocked field goal against LSU. For our players, we always try to identify what we do well and get better at it. Our two return teams have been well for years, but this year was the first time in the school's history that both the punt return and kickoff return teams ranked in the top-10 in the country. There are just a couple of teams in the country that did it this year, and Texas was one of them."

"That's huge for our players, because the return game creates field position and gives us a short field to score points. Conversely, our kickoff team tried to create good field position for our defense. We had one return in the last three years, the Washington game last year, that a team took it past our 35-yard line in league games. By comparison, our team had 31 returns past the 35-yard line in the last three years in league games. Our defense knows that when Jesse kicks, it will go for a touchback, which is our goal every time we kick, or we're gonna get those guys tackled inside the 20-yard line. Return teams get so frustrated against our kickoff team, that they run the ball five, six yards deep out of the end zone. So those three units played great. How do you get better than top-10 in the country in punt and kick returns? People say our special teams didn't play well. Our punt team didn't play well for four plays. Our special teams played awesome. We have a lot of walk-ons, backups and redshirt freshmen on those teams. We don't have many starters. Our challenge to get better is that we need more guys and that goes back to recruiting and trying to get those guys to help increase our depth."

DD: Granted, the accomplishments of the punt and kick return teams last season is a result of 11 players working well as a unit. However, Terry Richardson has been a highlight reel all season long with his returns. What makes him one of the best in the nation at this position?

TO: "The players believe in him. Terry took two long punts for touchdowns and had to beat the punter both times. I saw punt returns where the guy broke three tackles and made two guys miss. So our ten guys do an awesome job, because all Terry needs to do is beat the punter. So yes, Terry gets all the accolades, and they're well deserving. But my point is this, our players tell themselves ‘I can't be the guy that doesn't make the block, when the other nine guys do, because I know Terry can go the distance each time.' So, there's an accountability for each player on these units and they feel that every time they go on the field it's gonna be a touchdown. All they (the return teams) want to do is get into the game and make a difference. The return may just be a 21-yard gain, but that's two offensive first downs."

"Terry does have the ability to make people miss. There were times, just like it happens on offense, where a guy missed a block on a return. That's when it helps that Terry can make people miss and change directions at full speed. Some guys have to slow down and shuffle their feet to change directions. I really believe that his success is the work of the whole unit. Last year we had a different returner, Rudy Burgess, and we still finished top-25 in the country. It's an all-inclusive group, and when a guy goes down and we make a change, and that happens every week, the next guy playing on this unit knows that he better take pride in this – they're ten other guys out here busting their tails to help us win. So, again, and taking nothing away from Terry, you have to give the other ten guys credit."

DD: Jesse Ainsworth's kickoff stats speak for themselves. How do you feel he did in terms of field goal kicking, and later in the season as a punter?

TO: "You mention the kickoffs, and I do feel that's something we all take for granted until we don't have a guy that can do it anymore. To be able to put that ball for a touchback or make the guy return from two yards in the end zone…again, the amount of balls returned against us when the guy is deep in the endzone was unbelievable."

"He didn't have many opportunities to kick field goals. He attempted only 11 kicks and he had 28 in 2004. This is obviously because we were much more efficient in the end zone. He was 9 of 11 and one of them was blocked which wasn't his fault, so if you think about it he's really 90% on his field goals and not too may kickers can say that. He didn't make any from 50 yards or longer, but even in the NFL you can't take for granted shorter field goals and extra points (Ainsworth made all 53 extra points attempts). There's a lot of pressure on the snapper, holder and kicker. Our players have a lot of confidence in him, in Jason Burke the snapper and Chad Christensen the holder. It's been an awesome unit."

"Punting was obviously not Jesse's natural strength. But when he did it, and for a guy that hasn't done it since high school, and again, every team was brining the house against him, he did a great job and so did the guys blocking for him. Because he takes two short steps his punts don't even come close to getting blocked. Yes, he did have two shanks which kills the field position for our defense, but for the most part he did a great job. Only 24% of his punts were caught and advanced against us – that's the lowest percentage we had since we've been here as a coaching staff."

DD: How do you approach 2006 and the possibility of Jesse being the punter again?

TO: "That's a great question. Punting – that position will be like any other position on the team, the best guy will play. Chris MacDonald, Jonathan Johnson who has a redshirt year and Jesse will be put in as much of a game situation as we can put them in practice. MacDonald in punting drills can punt as well as any punter I've seen in my years of coaching. In a game situation, you have to get the ball off fast. Just like a quarterback who can't have a slow wind-up and a slow delivery. So those three guys are gonna battle like crazy in the fall, and the guy that gets the ball off the fastest and has the most consistent hang time is gonna be the punter. We have to create competition in each position on our team, and we should have a very efficient punter out of those three."

Part two of the Osborne interview will be published later in the week and cover the team's tight end group.

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