Someone has oiled the rusty machine that was the 2014 Arizona State special teams unit.
That someone is Shawn Slocum.
The newly acquired special teams and outside linebacker coach comes with nine years of NFL experience under his belt, three as special teams assistant coach of the Green Bay Packers and six as special teams coordinator.
The Packers thrived under Slocum's leadership and now fans are seeing ASU do the same.
"What we are from a special teams standpoint is night and day," head Coach Todd Graham said. "I mean Coach Slocum-I just wish I had hired him three years ago."
Graham said the biggest difference is an exponential increase in the overall awareness of what the unit is striving to do in the coming season.
"We're so much better on coverage teams and on the return. Just fundamental techniques on what we're doing, our punters, Edgar's (Gastelum) done a great job with kickoffs and we average 4.2 hang time on those," Graham said. "So we're just so much better."
Last season ASU averaged 61.9 yards a kick and 41.4 yards a punt. Junior kicker Zane Gonzalez was a key to ASU's special teams last season, making 22 of 27 field goals, and contributing roughly a fourth of ASU's total points last season, with 118 of 480 total points.
While ASU averaged 24.1 yards on the kick return last season, with 555 total, they only averaged 3.7 yards on punts compared to the opponent's 13.1 yard average. Punt returns for touchdowns by opponents nearly cost ASU last season in the Sun Bowl as well as games against USC and Arizona where the Sun Devils had a punt blocked early in the contest.
"We have met twice as much on special teams, we've devoted twice as much time to it and we're just so much better fundamentally," Graham said. "We've been obviously fairly basic with it before now."
With Kyle Middlebrooks and Damarious Randall (who struggled returning punts) now gone, both De'Chavon "Gump" Hayes and Kalen Ballage will be huge factors in the effort to improve the return yardage. Hayes poses the speed, and Ballage the 6-foot-3, 220-pound frame that can pound its way through defensive holes.
Graham said the biggest difference is the special teams unit is more motivated to function at a higher level under this new specialized coaching plan that devotes much more time and effort to a unit that already is packed with a lot of potential.
"We got somebody championing it. (Special teams) just never has had that and Coach has been doing nothing but that for 10 years and it's just provided a level where you can see the buy-in from the players," Graham said. "It really is just night and day better."