The final two years of the Dennis Erickson era at Arizona State had an abundance of many things: penalties, dashed hopes and loss opportunities. Among the few bright spots, however, were the return games, which were among the nation's best.
While Todd Graham and staff aim to overhaul the many disappointing aspects of the program, they'd be well served to keep on keepin' on when it comes to the team's kick returns.
In 2010, only one team (Central Florida, 27.8) had a better average on kickoffs than the Sun Devils' 27.5. ASU was joined by Connecticut as the only schools that year with three returns for touchdowns. Interestingly, those three scores came from three different players. Omar Bolden had a 97-yard score against Wisconsin, LeQuan Lewis took one 103-yards against USC and Jamal Miles, one one of his only three returns that year, had a 99 yarder against UCLA. The Devils came within a few inches of a fourth, as Kyle Middlebrooks took a kickoff 95-yards to the Badger one-yard line on the final play of the first half. While the kickoff returns were outstanding, the Devils were merely average on punt returns, finishing just 48th nationally with 9.1 yards per return.
Last season, that changed dramatically for the better, while the kick returns remained excellent.
The reason for the major upturn on punt returns was Miles. He was the primary returner in 2010 as well, and did a solid job with 8.6 yards per return then. However, last season, he nearly doubled that to 16.6, which was helped by a 78-yard score against Oregon State. With just 14 returns last season, he just barley missed qualifying for the national rankings, where his 16.6 average would have been the nation's third best. Overall, ASU's punt return game ranked No. 5 in the nation with a 15.3 average.
A player as explosive as Miles can't be limited to just one aspect of the returns, and thankfully he wasn't. He averaged 26.3 yards per return and scored two more touchdowns, but he was not alone in taking kicks to the house. Rashad Ross had a 100-yards score against Boise State, and overall, the Sun Devils' 25.1 yards per return ranked 10th in the country.
The chances of ASU making it three straight outstanding seasons are excellent, even if Miles' role in the return game is diminished as he becomes a bigger part of the passing game.
All of the key pieces all come back, as both Miles and Ross return and are as explosive as ever, as does Middlebrooks who looked more dynamic this spring than he did last year. They are joined by some other talented players who could become the next key peices of this burgeoning. Cornerback Robert Nelson is a speedy and shifty runner who split time with Ross on punts this spring. Prized recruit D.J. Foster is a home-run threat anytime he touches the ball, and with a very deep backfield, special teams may offer an avenue to get him more touches.
While fans are happy to see most elements of the Erickson regime go, they'd certainly be glad to continue to get that edge-of-your-seat thrill anytime a kicked ball is on it's way to a Sun Devil.
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