The Arizona State Sun Devils boasted one of the best special teams units in the country a season ago, but that could change a lot in 2017. Gone is Zane Gonzalez, the 2016 Lou Groza Award winner and NCAA all-time leading field goal maker and scorer as a kicker. But the loss of punter Matt Haack and return man Tim White will hurt, as well. But fear not, ASU fans, because the next crop of special teamers could turn out to be just that; special.
Freshman Brandon Ruiz — A three-star prospect from Williams Field High School in Gilbert, Ruiz flipped from Alabama to ASU two weeks before National Signing Day to replace Zane Gonzalez. Ruiz has already impressed in fall camp, nailing field goals of 50-plus yards consistently and blasting kickoffs. Though Ruiz is just a freshman, expectations are sky high for him to continue the trend of excellence from Sun Devil kickers.
Redshirt sophomore Michael Sleep-Dalton — Sleep-Dalton spent 2016 on the ASU bench after transferring from City College of San Francisco. The rugby-styled punter is a student of Pro-Kick Australia, the same training center that produced the past four Ray Guy Award winners and last year’s runner-up, Cameron Johnston of Ohio State, who is Sleep-Dalton’s cousin. Sleep-Dalton’s repertoire of kicks will allow ASU to incorporate an element of surprise into the punt unit that wasn’t necessarily there in years past.
Senior Mitchell Fraboni — You know you’re in uncharted territory when the most experienced player on the special teams is the snapper. Fraboni took centering duties from Donnie Shields during his freshman season and has been consistent ever since. He’s made 11 tackles in his Sun Devil career. The experience and leadership of Fraboni will allow a smoother transition for others on the unit, making sure the Sun Devils don’t see a drop of production.
Senior Kalen Ballage — A season ago, Ballage split time on the return side with Tim White and Gump Hayes, but with those two graduating, he may find himself as Arizona State’s return man. The big back returned 18 kickoffs for an average of 22.7 yards per return, but returned just one punt for a loss of six yards, providing doubt of who exactly will line up deep for punts.
As for other options, redshirt sophomore receivers John Humphrey and Ryan Newsome have gotten chances back deep during camp, as has freshman Trelon Smith. Whoever sets back alongside Ballage will likely take a majority of returns, because there’s no reason for ASU to risk the health of one of its most important players on kickoff returns.
Who else to watch
Redshirt junior John O’Brien will be waiting in the wings if either Ruiz or Sleep-Dalton struggle, as is freshman Christian Zendejas, who has more than a little cache attached to his name. Sophomores Cohl Cabral and Riley John filled in nicely for Fraboni at the start of 2016, so they could come in and snap again in a pinch, plus ASU rosters freshman long snapper Joe Reeves.