A season ago, the longest kickoff return for an Arizona State Sun Devil was by a linebacker.
Despite dynamic return men Tim White and Kalen Ballage back for kickoffs, the Sun Devils could rarely jumpstart their offense with big plays from special teams.
ASU averaged 21.66 yards per kickoff return in 2016, good for 46th in the nation. Thanks to a 70-yard touchdown by White against Washington State, the punt return average fared better in the national rankings, finishing 28th in the country with 10.26 yards per return.
But this year’s unit feels like they can be even better.
Despite being a large part of the offense, special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum said Ballage will likely see a lot of time on the return team, once again. He returned 18 kickoffs in 2016 for an average of 22.7 yards, but his one punt return lost six yards and was fumbled.
Alongside Ballage will be redshirt sophomore wide receivers Ryan Newsome and John Humphrey, according to Slocum.
Adding two players like Newsome and Humphrey adds a wrinkle to the return game, keeping opposing coaches off balance, which Slocum thinks can lead to more dynamic plays.
“We’ve got a number of explosive players, so I expect us to have some opportunities (for big plays),” Slocum said. “I think the group in front of those guys blocking has started to come together and know what they’re doing and should be a productive group.”
Newsome said the variation of styles between himself, Ballage and Humphrey will create a matchup nightmare for opposing coaches.
“I don’t think they can really prepare for three guys like that,” Newsome said. “I think Coach Slocum is doing a great job rotating us back there. Anybody can take it to the house, whether it’s me, John or KB.”
Without White’s long touchdown, the Sun Devil return average would have been around 7.5 yards per return, which would have put them in the bottom half of the country. Thankfully for Slocum, the Sun Devils have a big time replacement.
As a junior at Aledo High School in Texas, Newsome tied the national prep record by returning seven punts for touchdowns. His touchdown production dipped to two in his senior season, but it’s still where the transfer from Texas feels comfortable.
“I’m able to be more creative and do my own thing back there,” Newsome said. “Most of the time it’s just you doing your thing back there. Most people don’t like punt returns... but I’ve been doing it my whole life.”
Newsome has worked extensively with redshirt sophomore punter Michael Sleep-Dalton to help his reaction to different kinds of punts.
“He rugby kicks. He can boot it — line drive, high in the air,” Newsome said. “We can work on anything because he’s so diverse back there. I’m lucky to have a punter like Sleep because he can do a bunch of different things, so I can get ready for the games.”
With the variance of ability on the unit, the return game is primed for a successful season. Humphrey could barely contain his excitement not just for special teams, but to suit up again.
“I just can’t wait to step on the field.”