The Arizona State Sun Devils have used 10 kick and punt returners, which is more than any team in the Pac-12 besides week 11’s opponent, the UCLA Bruins (11).
After numerous combinations in the backfield, three were set to go on Saturday against Colorado: a pair of young, but potential-filled running backs and a 6-foot-4, 225-pound wide receiver.
Eno Benjamin, Trelon Smith and N’Keal Harry are all newest to join the pack.
Harry, who played football, baseball, basketball and ran track at Chandler High School hadn’t played on special teams since his freshman season at Chandler five seasons ago.
“He’s a guy who I trust,” special teams coach Shawn Slocum said. “He gets it. He see’s the game, he understands space and reacts well. He’s a good runner.”
It’s evident the Sun Devils need help returning punts.
ASU ranks 112th in the nation and last in the Pac-12, averaging just three yards per attempt. With 843 yards of total offense, Harry has accumulated 200 more yards than any Sun Devil skill payer.
He admitted though fielding punts wasn’t in his agenda. When his number was called four weeks ago, Harry stayed before and after practice fielding punts two weeks straight to ready up for game time.
“When they first put me back there it was tough, especially the first couple days.” Harry said. “I want to be that guy that’s reliable... I just feel like I can help the team when I have the ball in my hands. That’s something I really take pride in and I feel like I can make a difference in the game.”
Harry’s speed, strength and NFL-caliber body give coaches all the reason to put him in the backfield and he showed an extreme flash of his potential against Colorado,
Harry raced for a 60-plus yard return in the third quarter that was nearly a touchdown, but an illegal block sent it back to the ASU 5-yard line.
Other than that play, Harry’s returned three punts for just six yards. With room for improvement, Harry may see the field on special teams again against UCLA.
“We need better field position on punt returns and I still got a lot of work to do,” Harry said. “But if I keep improving, then I can help the team in that aspect.”
On kick returns, it was a pair of freshmen, Benjamin and Smith, who dug their cleats into the Sun Devil Stadium end zones for the first time, watching the ball sail through the air, then into their hands before a pack of Colorado Buffaloes rushing against them.
“It was a nerve racking feeling,” Benjamin said. “Honestly, just seeing the ball in the air, thoughts going through your mind — you can’t drop this. Big moments.”
Benjamin returned just two kick returns his senior year of high school for 13 yards. Smith, on the other hand, returned seven kicks for 197 yards his senior season, including an 87-yard return to boost his average 27.3 yards per return.
“Everything is faster. It’s quicker, so the decisions you make it’s got to be real quick,” Smith said. “It’s quicker than high school. Just make sure you do it right. Don’t mess up.”
The two are looking to provide support to a return game that also needs help. The Sun Devils rank 102nd in the nation. With a 20.3-yard average per return, it puts ASU second-to-last in the Pac-12.
Against Colorado, Benjamin and Smith combined to average 18 yards per return, but it’s all part of a developmental process. Without senior running backs Kalen Ballage and Demario Richard next season, it’s time for the two to see the field.
“We’ve developed them as we’ve gone through the season and they’re good players. Good young players, and that’s a difficult spot to be in,” Slocum said. “We want to get those guys going out at this point in their development. They’re explosive guys who can make big plays.”