Special teams. The name itself speaks to the very unique nature of the unit. Once viewed as the domain of backups and benchwarmers, special teams is now where games are won and lost at every level of football.
On Monday, Todd Graham and the coaching staff released the depth chart for the upcoming game against Northern Arizona. Among the positions listed are the special teamers of note -- lets break them down, one by one.
Punter: Josh Hubner
Hubner is a character. He's also a great punter, averaging over 41 yards a punt in his first year at ASU. Now a senior, the former JUCO standout is poised for a monstrous 2012 campaign. Hubner isn't one to shy away from speaking his mind, and when Brad asked him about how good of a year ASU could have, Josh said the following:
2012 ASU Season Preview
8/10: Running Backs
8/13: Wide Receivers/TEs
8/15: Offensive Line
8/17: Defensive Line
8/22: Defensive Backs
8/23: Special Teams
"I look at teams like the 2007 New York Giants. They weren't picked to do anything. They limped into the playoffs and they went the whole way. Teams don't need to be perfect, and we're not a perfect team by any means. We can improve every day. I honestly, 100% believe that if there is any year that ASU is going to do it, it's this year. 100%."
That's a leader right there. Confident yet willing to improve.
Kicker: Alex Garoutte
After a lengthy camp battle with Jon Mora and Dillon Jackson, Garoutte retained his job by the end of Camp Tontozona. Garoutte was inconsistent in his first season in Tempe, making only 15 of 22 field goals and 52 of 53 extra point attempts. His worst game came against UCLA, where he went 0-for-3 on field goal attempts while ASU lost by one point.
Fans are right to be apprehensive about their kicker, but Garoutte is a young player that is deserving of a little patience. Now a redshirt sophomore, Garoutte has three full seasons remaining as a Sun Devil and could blossom into a very solid player for Todd Graham over the next few seasons. Or not... but lets give him the benefit of the doubt.
Next up: long snappers, holders and return specialists.
Long Snapper: Easton Wahlstrom
Wahlstrom is a new addition to the depth chart this season, a true freshman from Desert Mountain in Scottsdale. He replaces Cameron Kastl as the man delivering the football to Hubner on punts and to Mike Bercovici on field goal attempts.
"The kid got here and started whipping the ball back to me at speeds I wasn't used to, which was a refreshing change," Hubner told us earlier this summer. "It was a little rough getting used to, but he, just like everyone else in the program, has worked his tail off this summer. He's come a long, long way with massive amounts of improvement. I'm very confident that he's going to be able to get the job done this year."
While Hubner has plenty of confidence in Wahlstrom, there were some performance issues during fall camp that worried many onlookers, including the coaching staff: at one point, Hubner himself was snapping the ball to Bercovici on practice field goals. With Wahlstrom locking down the job, our hope is that he has plenty of confidence to execute his role to perfection.
Holder: Mike Bercovici
Hubner handled the holder duties last season for Garoutte, but he will not reprise his role in 2012. Instead, third string quarterback Mike Bercovici will take over, giving Todd Graham another threat on special teams plays. With a strong-armed quarterback as a constant threat to stand up and gun the ball to a wide receiver, this wrinkle may pay dividends during a crucial situation at some point in the upcoming season.
Kick Returner/Punt Returner: Jamal Miles
This comes as no surprise. Miles is considered one of the best kick returners in the nation, having been named to the Jet Award watch list. Last season, Miles ran back two kickoffs for touchdowns (against UC Davis and Washington State), while taking a punt all the way against Oregon State. Miles will be busy on Saturdays this fall, starting as the Z receiver and playing a pivotal role on special teams.
When Miles is given a breather, the first man down the depth chart is Robert Nelson. Nelson transferred to ASU from Louisiana-Monroe after the 2010 season, redshirting during Dennis Erickson's final season in Tempe. Now, with two years eligibility, Nelson is the second string cornerback behind Deveron Carr and will see plenty of action on both defense and kick returns.
Undoubtedly, DJ Foster and Marion Grice will also field kicks at some point during the season.
It goes without saying that Garoutte, Hubner, and the rest of the specialists are immensely important to the Sun Devils' ambitions. On a game-by-game basis, there's no greater measuring stick than whether you can outshine your opponent on special teams.