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ASU Football: Special teams steadily coming along with right attitude in fall camp

How are the special teams, where Arizona State had a rough go of it last season, shaping up so far in 2014?

Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

"Auburn's gonna win the football game! Auburn's gonna win the football game! He ran the missed field goal back! He ran it back 109 yards! They're not going to keep them off the field tonight!"

That play is a prime example of special teams making the difference in a team's season. In the case of Arizona State, special teams was definitely at the top of the list of things that broke their season in 2013.

And it didn't just break either, it shattered to pieces.

The Sun Devils used four punters in Alex Garoutte, Matt Haack, Dom Vizzare, and even quarterback Taylor Kelly on a few pooch punts. Arizona State finished No. 119 in the country in net punt yardage last season with 33.18. The return game wasn't much better for the maroon and gold, who finished No. 96 in Division I with 5.72 yards per punt return. The one mediocre spot was in kick return, where the Sun Devils finished No. 62 with an average return of 21.56 yards.

So what's the good news out of all this? Todd Graham and his staff are determined to fix it in 2014, and have already gone about trying to do so in the first week of fall camp.

Kickoff/ punt return game and kickoff coverage

"It's faster," coach Todd Graham said. "We're going to play special teams, if we have to not redshirt somebody in order to play special teams that's what we're going to do."

One of the reasons Graham is willing to not redshirt players is because he subscribes to the philosophy that the best players should play on special teams. But last season there just wasn't enough quality roster depth. He cited former SPUR linebacker Chris Young as an example.

In the first half of the year, Young was running down the field on kickoff coverage without issue and as the season wore on, he couldn't get down to the other end as quickly. Now Graham says the depth has improved.

"We've got to have more depth guys on special teams," he said. " We want the best people out there, but we've got a lot of guys to pick from now. We're being very strategic, we just have to count those snaps so we know where we're at with that."

It's exactly that depth that has allowed Graham and defensive coordinator Keith Patterson a chance to try out a number of players at kickoff return so far in camp. Jaelen Strong and Kyle Middlebrooks got the earliest look at kickoff return, but Damarious Randall, Jalen Harvey and Kalen Ballage have also gotten a chance to return kicks and punts.

"We haven't put them under the gun yet, we'll see once we get them into scrimmage situations and see who can handle it. But we want guys back there that when people look back there they say, ‘wow, I don't know if I want to kick that ball deep or not.'" Patterson said.

Kicking game- Alex Garoutte, Zane Gonzalez and Matt Haack

If there is a part of special teams that shouldn't have many problems in 2014, it's the kicking.

Garoutte was miscast last year at punter at times and although he took heat for it for his poor performance there, it wasn't his natural position to begin with. He is much more productive as a deep kicker and was stable there last season, averaging 62.2 yards per kickoff with 39 touchbacks.

The Brophy Prep graduate says he has noticed most coaches and players taking a more interested role in special teams in camp.

"Everyone is into it, it's the number one priority, we're going to have a lot of our best players and a lot more depth," Garoutte said. "It's the emphasis of our team because we struggled in it last year."

While it is a positive that the players acknowledge it's an area that needs improvement, defensive coordinator Keith Patterson wants to make sure they're not putting too much pressure on themselves to overdo it early on.

"Right now their legs look very live. We're trying to make sure to limit the number of kicks that they have and just try and make sure they take care of themselves," Patterson said. "It's a long season, we're just trying to ease them into shape and don't over kick early, right now they're thumping the ball really well."

Zane Gonzalez is a player that certainly got his share of publicity and "thumped" the ball last season. He hit 25 of his 30 field goals last season and was a perfect 63-of-63 on extra points. His abilities earned him a spot on the first team All-Pac-12 and he was also a semifinalist for the Lou Groza Award.

"We have a lot more confidence in everything that we're doing," Gonzalez said.

In an environment like college football where kickers can be historically unreliable, the Sun Devils are lucky to have someone as strong and reliable at the position as Gonzalez. Graham expects even more out of his star kicker this season.

"I look for him to be much more mature this season and I want him to be 100 percent," Graham said. "The biggest thing I've told him is he's got to prove it again this year. He knows he has the talent to be the best kicker in the country. He had a great year last year but we want him to make every one of them."

Meanwhile at punter, Matt Haack seems to be the player of record. He didn't see any action at all until the first Stanford game last season. He averaged 38.2 yards per punt with 16 total punts, minuscule compared to the Josh Hubner numbers of seasons' past, but Patterson has faith in his abilities.

"I think that's the only way you can get good at something," Patterson said. "He has really stepped up and really improved in the spring and had a great summer so I really think he can help us develop some consistency there."

The Patterson effect

Something else that will benefit the special teams in 2014 will be Patterson's ability to stay on the same page with Graham, given their long history together. Graham said he has given Patterson complete control over the calls on special teams, but mentioned he'll still have a say in the audibles.

"He's just a smart guy and he's personable," Gonzalez said.

As for that miracle "kick six" that happened in Auburn, Alabama that night? Patterson said he'll have the special teams ready for anything, including a play just like that one.

"You can try and put yourself in every single situation that can arise over the course of a game," Patterson said. "You're always trying to at least expose them to those situations, so when they arise in the game, they feel like they're prepared."