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We kick off (pun intended) our midseason review of Sun Devil football with a look at the special teams units
The first six games of the Todd Graham era at Arizona State Sun Devils have been, by just about every measure, a roaring success. The offense has been potent with quarterback Taylor Kelly leading the charge, the defense is a remorseless instrument of terror, and the discipline changes have ASU from the bottom to near the top of the nation in avoiding penalties.
However, there is one aspect of the game that still retains that most Ericksonian quality of inconsistency: special teams.
Let's take a look at how each aspect has fared through the season's first half.
One of the biggest uncertainties over the offseason is even more muddled. Kicker Alex Garoutte looked to put a shaky debut season behind him last year, and was able to fend off Jon Mora and Dillon Jackson during fall camp to keep his job.
However, after a pair of under 40-yard misses against Cal, dropped him to just six for 10 on the year, Graham made a change. Mora got the nod against Colorado, but promptly underkicked an extra point that was blocked. Garoutte then came back and made five PATs, but Mora got a measure of redemption later with a 38-yard field goal.
Suffice it to say, the Sun Devil field goal kicking situation is as shaky as it's been since 2007. Neither Garoutte nor Mora give fans any reason for confidence when lining up for anything but a chipshot field goal, and with the tough back half of the schedule upcoming, ASU cannot afford to botch any scoring chances. There is of course room for both to improve, but this is surely the most worrisome, and potentially costly, of situations on the roster.
Garoutte has been average on kickoffs, ranking 47th in the nation with a 62.7-yard average and 49th with touchbacks on just 46.6% of his kicks (21 of 45).
Things are much better with the loquacious Josh Hubner, who oratorical skills are matched with by the level of his punting.
Heading into the weekend, Hubner ranked 12th in the nation, averaging 45.58 yards-per-punt. While he has shown off his great leg strength, it has been his ability to pin opponents deep that has been most impressive. On the season, 10 of his 21 kicks have ended inside the 20-yard line, with only three touchbacks.
He did have a botched snap against Missouri that hurt, but he's otherwise been a great asset to the team. Over the last half of the year, be on the look out for the fake punt that he hinted to us about over the offseason...
Kickoff and Punt Returns
Remember when Jamal Miles was as dangerous a returner as anyone in the country?
Yeah, that has not been the case so far this season. Miles has been average at best on both kickoffs (21.1 yards-per-return) and punts (7.9) this season, looking tentative and devoid of his rare burst from a season ago. Most crucially, he has lost fumbles on each, with his fumbled punt against Missouri setting up a Tiger touchdown and Thursday turnover against Colorado giving up a field goal. His senior slump is one of the most surprising developments of the young season.
Kickoff and Punt Coverage
Perhaps something can be said about in-game repetition here.
With ASU scoring as much as they have, their kickoff coverage team has seen, they have been solid, limiting opponent's to just 20.1 yards-per-return on 24 run backs, with a long of 42 yards surrendered.
The same can't be said for the punt team. While ASU hasn't punted too much and Hubner has generally pinned opponents deep and forced six fair catches, the Sun Devils have allowed 14.3 yards on the seven returns, which ranked 115th among the 124 FBS teams.
With tougher defenses and explosive returners looming on the horizon, this situation warrants watching down the stretch.
These are two areas that succeed when anonymous, and unfortunately, that's not been the case throughout the early season.
Newcomer Easton Wahlstrom was brought in to handle the long snapping duties, but a very inconsistent fall camp had him benched for a time. He regained the snapping punts on punts, but Hubner has now taken over the snapping on placekicks. Walhstrom has been better of late, but had some shaky snaps earlier in the season.
There has been only one error on holds this season, but it was a doozy. After ASU scored a key fourth quarter touchdown to cut the Missouri lead to 24-20, they lined up for an extra point to make it a field goal game. However, holder Ryan Woods bobbled the snap, tried to run and was tackled. That four-point margin came back to haunt the Sun Devils later, when at they were forced to try a fourth down play instead of a chips hot, game-tying field goal. The pass from Taylor Kelly was incomplete, and the Sun Devils lost their only game of the first half.