The Arizona State Sun Devils had plenty to celebrate in 2013, but quite often, those celebrations were tempered by rough outings from the special teams units. Todd Graham reiterated throughout the season that special teams was the most important facet of the game, but the Sun Devils just couldn't string together consistency in the third phase of football.
2013 Expectations: Even though the most casual fans could tell that Arizona State special teams were a mess in 2013, but it's easy to forget that there were almost no expectations heading into the season.
In the place kicking game, Arizona State returned Alex Garoutte and Jon Mora, two players who struggled mightily in Graham's first season at the helm. The Sun Devils knew that the returning pair wouldn't cut it, so Graham went out and snagged a kicker from Texas after Signing Day.
Zane Gonzalez arrived on campus in the fall with the hopes of Sun Devil nation riding on his shoulders, and Gonzalez won the job. However, as a freshman kicker, there is only so much Arizona State could expect from Gonzalez.
Gonzalez was joined by a fellow freshman at the punting spot who was also a member of the 2013 recruiting class. Matt Haack earned a scholarship out of high school to replace Josh Hubner at punter, who was one of the Sun Devils' most valuable weapons in 2012.
Matching Hubner's productivity as a freshman would be a remarkable feat, but the Sun Devils simply expected Haack to prove his scholarship was worthwhile and to bring some consistency back to the position.
In the return game, Arizona State graduated kick returner Rashad Ross and punt returner Jamal Miles who were both capable of going the distance. Though the losses hurt, the Sun Devils had a number of players with experience as returners at both the high school and the college level who figured to do a serviceable job.
Entering the season, Arizona State really didn't know what to expect out of its special teams units. The Sun Devils lost so many key players that there were bound to be hiccups and struggles. Still, a roster full of Pac-12-caliber players is expected to be able to fill the voids and make for a seamless transition.
2013 Production: Quite simply, the special teams units were a complete disaster in 2013. Perhaps visions of the Stanford and Texas Tech games are so scarring that it's difficult to see the progress some units made, but watching Arizona State's special teams was traumatic for most fans.
The lone bright spot was place kicker Zane Gonzalez, who earned First Team All-Pac-12 honors and was one of the most pleasant surprises on the Sun Devil team. Gonzalez finished the season with 25 made field goals in 30 attempts and received numerous postseason honors from publications around the country for his outstanding efforts.
Gonzalez did not miss a kick from Sept. 21 until the Pac-12 Championship game, and the stability he brought to the place kicking spot is something Arizona State has been missing since the Thomas Weber days.
Unfortunately, Gonzalez's success isn't nearly enough for the special teams units to receive a passing grade.
Arizona State needed four different players to punt this year including Alex Garoutte, Matt Haack, Dom Vizzare, and quarterback Taylor Kelly. Despite the variety, not one Sun Devil punter managed to own the position as Arizona State finished 119th out of 125 in net punting this season with an average of 33.18 net yards.
The Sun Devils had botched snaps, blocked kicks, and took themselves out of contention against Stanford back in September with their punting woes. Arizona State did have an incredible game punting the football against UCLA, but that's because they executed two critical fakes.
Arizona State also had difficulties in its return game this season. Whether it be kick return or punt return, the Sun Devils never truly threatened an opponent with a return touchdown.
The Sun Devils finished 96th nationally in punt returns with an average of 5.72 yards per return, but there's not a soul who watched Arizona State football and thought that Robert Nelson was the safest option. Nelson had a phenomenal season as First Team All-Pac-12 cornerback, but when it came to returning punts, he nearly gave his teammates and coaching staff heart attacks.
A variety of Sun Devils helped contribute to slightly better numbers in the kick return game, but the Sun Devils still finished just 62nd out of 125 FBS teams with an average return of 21.56 yards. Arizona State never took a kickoff all the way back, and the Sun Devils did not earn short fields on a routine basis.
All in all, a horrendous year punting the football overshadows what was really just a mediocre season of special teams. Still, Arizona State fans will be happy to know that Todd Graham will address special teams in the offseason in hopes of finding a way to make improvements and keep the Sun Devils competitive in that aspect of the game.