Note: The interviews for this story took place prior to ASU-Oregon State. At the time, interim head coach Shaun Aguano’s staff was still at the helm, including former head of special teams, Shawn Slocum.
TEMPE - If there is one thing long-snapper John Ferlmann wants everyone to know, it is that the Sun Devil specialists are not lazy, even if it may look that way on the sidelines.
“I mean people look at us and they go ‘oh they’re not doing anything in practice,’” Ferlmann said with a smile. “We’re there before (the rest of the players) are!”
The ASU special teams triumvirate, consisting of Ferlmann, punter Eddie Czaplicki and kicker Carter Brown, shows up an hour before practice every single day. They attempt to polish the snap-hold-kick sequence of field goals and punts, work on timing, and set a foundation. Ferlmann wants that to be remembered when the trio is spotted without helmets, cracking jokes on the sideline.
Now that has been addressed. Let’s talk about the rest of ASU special teams, which is the first phase to go through a transition in the Kenny Dillingham-era.
As of Wednesday, Charlie Ragle will officially take over coaching special teams, along with the title of assistant head coach, under Dillingham. Shawn Slocum, as well coordinators Donnie Henderson and Glenn Thomas, will not be retained.
The year in review
It’s hard to make any sort of sense of the program’s third-phase in 2022 from reading the stat-sheet or monitoring online composite-rankings. ASU returned kickoffs for more yards (24.2) than any other team in the Pac-12, but they were the worst punt-returning team in the conference (3.3 yards per-return). Brown attempted five field goals in the first two games (first three-games were part of the Herm Edwards-era), but he was only trotted out for six more tries the rest of the season.
Czaplicki, on-average, was the seventh-best punter in the FBS this season at 46.06 yards per-punt, but there were a few scenarios where his gunners failed to down punts inside the five-yard-line. He could realistically be in the top-five.
They’re just kind of all over the place. To cap off the weirdness, Ferlmann was even ejected for targeting in the loss Washington State.
But what is the undoubtable constant that surrounds ASU special teams units of both past and present? The talent, specifically kicking the ball, which should not be lost on Ragle and Dillingham amid the transition.
Continuing a trend
The list is an impressive one. Luis Zendejas was a consensus All-American in 1982. Zane Gonzales, who kicked the most field goals in ASU history, is riding-out a successful and lucrative NFL career. Gonzalez’s ASU teammate Matt Haack is still on an NFL roster as well. Former Sun Devil punter Michael Turk, who transferred to Oklahoma following the 2020 season, is one of the few FBS punters with a higher average than Czaplicki this season.
Shawn Slocum continued the trend during his tenure, and Dillingham should take advantage of the players Slocum recruited.
“(Slocum) set a standard,” Ferlmann said. “And if you’re a recruit trying to, you know, go pro trying to take things further, you look at a guy like that and you really want to learn from him and grow under his wing.”
With Turk’s transfer came an opportunity for the North Carolina-native Czaplicki, the No. 3 place-kicking prospect in the nation and already in Tempe, to transition to punting.
“Well, it was an interesting situation,” Czaplicki said. “I trained all summer for field goals, and then (for me) to come in and punt, it threw me through a bit of a loop...To have (Slocum) around to hold me to a high-standard helped me out. I think that was invaluable.”
His breakout came against USC in 2021, when Czaplicki punted three times for an average of a whopping 51.6 yards per-punt. For reference, if he sustained that average over a full season, it would be the best in FBS history.
This year, Czaplicki’s 46.06-yard average was the best in the Pac-12. Fifteen of his punts were downed inside the 20-yard line, and 16 went for over 50 yards. He attributes his success to his versatility within his arsenal. Like the way a baseball pitcher has fastballs and breaking balls, a punter has a few tricks from which he can choose.
“If they have a really dangerous returner, I just throw it up there (to get) hangtime to make sure he doesn’t have the opportunity to make a play,” Czaplicki said. “If we need a field-flip, I can call on that with a different ball flight. If we are trying to pin them deep, I just think control is my thing.”
Eddie Czaplicki (@EddieCzaplicki) strikes again on a 46-yard punt, downed by Tommi Hill (@hilltommi13) at the BYU 1-yard line. Two punts downed at the 1-yard line for the freshman in three games. pic.twitter.com/QXW3Kzn3os— DevilsDigest.com (@DevilsDigest) September 19, 2021
Brown, who is a freshman, generated similar buzz in his first game as a Sun Devil against NAU this fall. He went 4-for-4 in his debut, nailing two kicks from 44-yards out. In his first ever collegiate appearance, Brown won Pac-12 Special Teams Player of the Week. He did so again following the 45-38 win over Washington when he drilled a career-high 53-yard field goal. On the season, he successfully made 11-of-14 (78.6%) field goals and was a perfect 33-for-33 on extra points.
It’s no secret that the Sun Devils have professional-level talent booting the football. These are the players that have spent the better part of their lives simulating one or two specific movements, and they’ve come close to mastering it.
“I keep a journal of stuff that I’m working on,” Czaplicki said. “There’s a lot of very minute things that you can’t see in film, then you have to go off of feel...It’s kind of like golf.”
Brown carries a more simple mindset, one that is also built on trust.
“Honestly in those 1.2 or 1.3 seconds, it’s just swing and I know (Ferlmann and Czaplicki are) going to get their job done.”
A sweat-inducing spotlight
That number, 1.3, is highly significant for players in this particular sect of football. From the time the ball is snapped, to the time it is kicked, no more than 1.3 seconds should elapse, according to experts.
With such a lack of wiggle-room, the highs are high, and the lows are low. Perhaps no other position in football has more of a spotlight under pressure than the kicker. Yes, the kicker, who receives the vast majority of blame when the ball does not go through the uprights.
“You have one job! Kick the ball!”
According to Ferlmann, that line of thinking breeds unreasonable expectations.
“If I throw a bad ball, I think a lot of people blame the kicker for what me or (the holder) did wrong,” Ferlmann said. “So if I mess up and I put him in a bad situation, yeah, it might look bad on (the kicker), but truthfully, it was my fault.”
“At the most basic level, I want to let go of the ball simultaneously with both hands so it comes out with the perfect spiral,” Ferlmann added. “Once you get the yardage down, and you’ve got a good holder, he’s going to be in the same spot every time. So I can trust that at eight yards, it’s going to hit the same point every single time.
“If I snap it how I should, it’s going to have laces out, exactly where it’s supposed to hit, where (Czaplicki) can just catch it and put it down.”
Trust. That word came up a lot between the three. By season’s end, the Sun Devils did not have any muffed snaps on the year.
In the modern-age of football, a team’s punter almost always acts as the holder for field goal attempts. This is no different for Czaplicki.
“There’s a lot of ways to do the same thing, and some of those ways are wrong,” he said. “It’s about building the right habits with the right motions with the body through certain mental cues and thoughts that you are thinking about every single rep.”
The trio establishes a unique chemistry as a result. They spend all day together. They are often chosen to be roommates (Czaplicki and Ferlmann shared a dorm in their freshman year). They’re in the same meetings. It’s purposeful, and it makes sense. Preparation and chemistry are a perfect formula for confidence, and the results showed.
Only time will tell if the three specialists will return for next season under a new staff. Czaplicki and Brown are both extremely talented, and ASU kickers and punters (Turk, Christian Zendejas) are not strangers to the portal.
Long-snappers are typically less of a priority in the transfer portal than other positions, so expect Ferlmann to return for his junior season.
You can shout at him too. He won’t mind.
“I kind of like when the lights are on,” Ferlmann said. “I like when people are shouting at me. I like the energy itself. It can be positive, negative, I just like it.”