Last season, the Arizona State special teams lived up to the moniker. At times.
On the plus side, Josh Hubner proved to be one of the nation's best, as he amassed an NFL-caliber resume. Kevin Ayers became a punt blocking ace, and Rashad Ross showed that he is faster than Colorado.
But then...there was the other side of the coin.
The on-going unease at place kicker resulted in a change, and heading into fall camp, that issue still has yet to be fully resolved. The return game was largely a disappointment at the hands of Jamal Miles. After finishing fifth in the nation in punt returns and 10th on kickoffs in 2011, the Sun Devils plummeted to 68th and 51st, respectively. The coverage teams struggled as well, ranking 91st on punts and 74th on kickoffs.
With his All-Pac-12 punter, top two return men, and his holder gone, among others, special teams coach Joe Lorig has his work cut out for him this offseason.
- K Jon Mora - 9 of 12 FG, 1 of 2 PAT, Long of 39
- K Alex Garoutte - 6 of 11 FG, 59 of 60 PAT, Long of 43
- LS Easton Wahlstrom
- PR Rick Smith - 3 returns, 10 yards, 3.3 ypr
- PR Robert Nelson - 2 returns, 13 yards, 6.5 ypr
Among the 27 members of the 2013 recruiting class, many will contribute on coverage and return teams, but a few should battle for prominent spots.
With the departure of Josh Hubner, one of the nation's best punters, ASU brought in Matt Haack. A rugby-style, left-footed punter, Haack has a strong leg, and also may see time at wide receiver, where he was one of the most productive pass catchers in Iowa last season.
In the return game, there are a few intriguing options, top among them junior college transfer Damarious Randall, who was one of the elite returners in the country last season. Ronald Lewis and Cameron Smith are electric playmakers who could also get a look.
- P Matt Haack
- Damarious Randall - All-ACCAC 1st team returner, 18.4 ypr on punts, 2 PR TD, 28.2 ypr on kickoffs
- Ronald Lewis
- Cameron Smith
- KR Rashad Ross - 15 kickoff returns, 384 yards, 25.6 ypr, 1 TD
- PR/KR Jamal Miles - 26 punt returns, 230 yards, 8.8 ypr, 0 TD, 16 kickoff returns, 349 yards, 21.8 ypr, 0 TD
- P/LS Josh Hubner - 52 punts, 47.1 avg., 19 FC, 20 inside 20, 22 over 50 yards
- ST Kevin Ayers - 2 blocked punts
- Holder Ryan Woods
Keep an Eye on: Rick Smith
While lacking in size (5-foot-9, 165), Smith makes up for with speed and elusiveness. The sophomore heads into spring camp as one of the favorites to win a starting wide receiver job, but he also could become a terror in the return game.
He did little with the three punts he fielded a year ago, but his agility, open-field moves, and game-breaking skillset make him a lethal threat in the return game.
Biggest Strength: Explosive Returners
Along with Smith, senior cornerback Robert Nelson was also a part of the return game, and should get a chance to show what he can do back deep. He has good speed and is elusive with the ball in his hands, but he may be limited if he manages to win a starting cornerback spot opposite Osahon Irabor.
The team will be bolstered in the fall with the arrival of Damarious Randall, who was explosive in the return game at the junior college level. Incoming wide receivers Ronald Lewis and Cameron Smith are also deadly returners and should get long looks there.
Biggest Concern: Place Kicking
Yes, it continues.
The on-going issues with the Sun Devil kicking game persist. Alex Garoutte entered the season as the starter, but after some misses (three misses under 40 yards), he lost his job to Jon Mora, although Garoutte continued to be the extra point man.
Mora was solid if unspectacular. He made nine of his 12 kicks, including a perfect three-for-three against UCLA, but did not hit from beyond 40 yards, so that question persists.
ASU has championship aspirations in 2013, and figures to be in several tight battles that special teams could tip in their favor. But as teams like Boise State have seen, one bad kick can ruin it all.
What It All Means
This will be a time of change and transition for the special teams units.
First and foremost, the team needs a consistent kicker to emerge from the Mora vs. Garoutte battle. Games will almost certainly come down to whether or not the Sun Devil kicker can convert in key moments, and this could be the difference between a South division title or a return trip to the Fight Hunger Bowl.
The spring will also be a time for Smith, Nelson and others to make their mark as returners, before they are joined in August by some talented newcomers.
All told, Lorig has a lot of things to sort out over the next 15 practices to position his units to be a key driver of Sun Devil wins in 2013.
2013 Spring Football Primer Series