Defense and special teams. Since the start of the 2013 season, it seems that Todd Graham cannot focus on anything other than those two phases of the game.
Fortunately for Graham, the Sun Devils' offense has been a top-10 unit nationally and even though he harps on improvement, the defense has been a bright spot as well. Still, it's special teams play that has been Arizona State's downfall, and something needs to be done.
At the end of last season, Graham famously said that the special teams woes will be dealt with "immediately." Though it took early February, Arizona State announced that special teams coordinator Joe Lorig left the coaching staff and the Sun Devils replaced him with Keith Patterson.
Patterson is a long-time friend of Graham's, and together, the pair plans to monitor all aspects of special teams next season. Graham said he will be taking a "personal interest" in how the special teams units perform, and that's been apparent throughout spring practices.
On Tuesday, Arizona State devoted about a half hour to special teams mechanics ranging from punting to kickoff return, and the Sun Devils brought a high level of intensity and focus to these drills. Arizona State also revealed the early front-runners for playing time in key spots, and we have a detailed breakdown.
In 2013, Arizona State finished 118th out of 123 teams nationally with 37.4 yards per punt. The Sun Devils tried everyone from Matt Haack to Dom Vizzare to Alex Garoutte and even Taylor Kelly in punting situations and no one could find any sort of consistency.
By the end of last season, Arizona State resorted to a rugby punting style in which kickoff specialist Alex Garoutte would roll to his right and punt a line drive in hopes that his kick would benefit from a good bounce.
Arizona State desperately needs a turnaround at the punter spot, and so far this spring, Matt Haack has looked like the answer. Haack is booming punts, which is something he failed to do at practice last season, and looks to have his confidence back. After Tuesday's practice, Todd Graham praised Haack for his efforts this spring.
"Haack has had a great four days punting," Graham said. "I think there's some things that we've worked on with the rhythm and timing, some things that are going to help so I'm encouraged there as well."
Garoutte is taking second-team repetitions at punter, and Haack is the clear favorite at this point in the spring. Arizona State also has a lot riding on the soon-to-be sophomore because he is a scholarship player, so the Sun Devils want to see production.
With a poor reputation punting the football, the Sun Devils know that teams will send the house and try to block kicks this season. That puts an emphasis on the punt protection unit, and the Sun Devils are auditioning three important players to handle the toughest part of the rush.
Arizona State lines up in a spread formation when the Sun Devils punt, which means that three players are situated about two-thirds of the way between the long snapper and the punter. On Tuesday, those three players were Christian Westerman, Jamil Douglas and Marcus Hardison.
The Sun Devils want bigger, more physical players to form the wall of protection in front of the punter, and all three of these players fit the bill. Last season, Will Sutton played in Douglas's new role in the middle of the wall, so finding his replacement is critical.
The second-team unit that blocked for Garoutte featured Viliami Latu, Chans Cox and Eriquel Florence. All three of these players are Devil linebackers, and a bit more agile than the three players who took the first-team reps. These roles are far from being set in stone, but it is interesting to see the different looks that Arizona State has on the punt team right now.
Arizona State's kickoff return unit didn't spark much fear in opponents last season, as the Sun Devils averaged just 21.6 yards per return. Marion Grice was the most successful returner with an average of 24.1 yards per return on a team-high 21 returns, but he wasn't exactly the prototypical returnman.
On Tuesday, five or six different players lined up as kick returners highlighted by the emergence of Kyle Middlebrooks. Middlebrooks' near-kickoff return for a touchdown against Wisconsin in 2010 is engrained in the minds of Sun Devil fans till this day, and he appears to have finally regained his freshman form.
After a brutal string of injuries, Middlebrooks has regained his confidence and is running at full speed this spring. His presence gives Arizona State the dynamic threat it has been missing on kick returns, and the Sun Devils want to give Middlebrooks a chance to earn his way onto the field.
The kick returners were on the far side of the field from where we stood during practice, but Jaelen Strong was also back deep returning kicks. Incoming junior college transfer De'Chavon Hayes and freshman Chad Adams could boost the return game when they arrive on campus.
Todd Graham has never been shy about having his starters play on special teams, and on Tuesday, many of the Sun Devils' best players were taking reps with the kickoff coverage unit.
Salamo Fiso, Antonio Longino and De'Marieya Nelson anchored the middle waves of the first-team coverage unit. Nelson made a name for himself last season as he was consistently the first player down the field on kickoff and made his fair share of tackles on kickoffs.
D.J. Foster and Jordan Simone also lined up on kickoff coverage with Foster playing as the contain man. Last week, Graham said the Simone would have started on every special teams unit if he was eligible last season so it wouldn't be surprising for the walk-on to do so this year.
Alex Garoutte took the first-team reps at kicker while Zane Gonzalez also displayed nice distance on his kickoffs with the second-team unit.
Special Teams Notes
- Damarious Randall was spotted returning punts on Tuesday. Randall was an excellent returner in junior college but did not get the chance to return punts last year.
- Zane Gonzalez has struggled with his field goals throughout spring practices. The coaching staff is putting a greater emphasis on the field goal block unit at this point in the spring, but it is still surprising to see Gonzalez miss.