Each week from now until the first game of the 2013 Sun Devil football season, the ASU media relations department will release a position group summary for every spot on the Sun Devil roster. These will provide in-depth detail on the top returners, promising newcomers and all you could need to know about each position as we head into what should be another exciting season under Todd Graham.
The first batch of summaries will focus on the offensive side of the ball, and this week we review the 2013 Sun Devil Special Teams
by Jeremy Hawkes
Head coach Todd Graham has made no secrets about the fact that he wants his special teams group to be dynamic and have the ability to be a game-changer. He has noted on more than one occasion that if the team excels on special teams, they will have a great shot at winning the game.
One of the many differences fans will see on special teams this season comes in the form of the coaching layout. Last year, Joe Lorig served as the coordinator of special teams but each coach was responsible for one phase of the overall scheme. This season, Lorig will serve as the sole voice on special teams, a decision that Graham though would be most conducive moving forward.
One of the advantages this season, especially on kick coverage, will be ASU’s added depth across the board. Last season, it wasn’t uncommon to see guys like Brandon Magee, Carl Bradford, Deveron Carr and other starters on coverage simply because of the emphasis placed by Coach Graham on having the best guys on the field. This season, the Sun Devils have the luxury of having exceptional depth players that can fill in for the role of the starters, allowing for fresh legs and fewer chances for there to be injuries to a significant player.
Kick coverage will be a point of emphasis for the Sun Devils this season, as the squad finished 91st nationally in punt return coverage, giving up 10.08 yards per return (though it should be noted that there were only 12 returned punts on the season) while finishing 74th in kick return coverage at 21.92 yards per return.
The Sun Devils were 10th in the nation in starting field position with an average starting point at their own 33-yard line. The team was actually 24th overall in opponent starting position, keeping the opposition at an average starting position of the 28-yard-line, but had a touchback just 38.89 percent of the time (35 of 90), which ranked a middling sixth in the conference. The team also gave up eight returns of 40 yards or more last season, a total that ranked 10th in the conference. Improving upon both those issues would go a long way toward the Sun Devils’ cause this season.
Graham and Lorig will have an armamentarium of playmakers available to them this season, with plenty of depth that will make the biggest challenge seemingly finding a place to put them all. Gaging the special teams side of things before the season is about as difficult as any task with so many variables in place but here’s a look at how things might break down over the coming season.
Possessing an array of celerity, D.J. Foster finished the offseason atop a bevy of candidates on the depth chart following the Spring session as far as being the lead kick returner. Even despite not having returned a kick in his collegiate career, the standout hybrid running back has received recognition on the Paul Hornung Preseason Watch List, given annually to the most versatile player in college football.
Foster has packed on about 15-20 pounds this season and is even more explosive than he was last year, which should help him break through the gaps and have the opportunity to post significant return yards.
Right behind Foster on the Spring depth chart at kick returner was fellow running back Marion Grice. Anyone who watched Sun Devil football last season knows what Grice can do with a ball in his hands. Grice has the ability to break through tackles but also has the maneuverability to break off defenders in the open field and his breakaway speed when in the clear makes him a threat to score every time he touches the ball.
Sophomore Rick Smith finds himself at the top of the depth chart for punt returns after the Spring and behind Foster an Grice on kick returns. The speedy wideout possesses a similar skill set to Jamal Miles, ASU’s recently departed all-time leader in kick return yardage. With electrifying speed and great cutting abilities, Smith will certainly play a role in filling the void at returner left by Miles and Rashad Ross.
Behind Smith on the punt return depth chart are Robert Nelson and Alden Darby. Nelson had two returns for 13 yards last season and had three interception returns for 68 yards on the season. Darby had three interceptions returns for 154 yards (an impressive 51.3 yard per clip) and a touchdown on the season and would serve admirably in the role as well.
Things will get interesting in the fall with an influx of newcomers that possess a dynamic set of skills and could all factor heavily in the return game.
Ball-hawking defensive back Damarious Randall averaged 18.4 yards on punt returns with two touchdowns at Mesa Community College last season and 28.2 yards on 19 kickoffs while leading MCC with 1,078 all-purpose yards. Possessing 4.40 40-yard dash speed and incredible versatility, Ronald Lewis averaged an incredibly 33 yards per return at West Jefferson high school last season and had two 90+ yard touchdowns in his career there.
ASU will also gain a boost from Pierce College teammates and transfers Jaelan Strong and Joe Morris, explosive receivers that will add to the Sun Devil depth in a variety of ways.
One of the more unenviable positions on any roster comes at placekicker. Loved when the balls are going through the uprights and loathed just about all of the rest of the time, it is one of the more mentally taxing positions on the team.
Last season, ASU saw its up’s and down’s at the position with Jon Mora ultimately taking over the duties on fields goals while Alex Garoutte handled kickoffs and extra points. Mora ultimately finished the season with nine field goals on 12 attempts (right around the national average) after taking over for Garoutte, who was 6-of-11 through the first five games of the season. One of the more underrated plays of the season was Mora’s career-long 39-yarder against Arizona early in the fourth quarter that helped start the Sun Devils’ fantastic rally to win the game.
Garoutte was a rock on extra points on the season, connecting on 59 of 60 attempts on the season with the lone miss coming just before halftime in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl against Navy. Garoutte had 35 touchbacks on 90 kickoffs last season and his 5,511 total yards on kicks was third in the conference tough his average yardage of 61.23 was seventh.
Both will continue to compete for the starting kicking job, though at the end of Spring the lineup remained unchanged from how things ended last season.
The two will receive stiff competition from incoming freshman Zane Gonzalez who was 10-of-10 on field goals at Deer Park High School without missing an extra point on the year. He has a career long of 48 yards as a junior and has connected on 28 straight dating back to his junior year. Eighty of his 112 kickoffs over the past two seasons have gone for touchbacks.
Lorig says all three will have a chance to compete and that they can all can kick 50-yarders consistently with no pressure but the key will be a making those kicks when the time calls for it and he hopes the pressure of competition within practice will help set the three on their way.
One of the toughest positions to fill following the graduation of last year’s seniors will come at the punter position, where ASU will have to fill the void left by Josh Hubner. Last season, Hubner set the school record for yards per punt at 47.1 and was named a Lindy’s third-team All-American and Sports Illustrated honorable mention All-American.
In the spring, Dom Vizzare – who coincidently comes from Scottsdale Community College, as did Hubner – was exceptional as a walk-on. In the Spring Game, Vizzare had six punts for an average of 45.3 yards per punt and a long of 54 while downing four inside the 20.
The Sun Devils signed Matt Haack out of Dowling High in Des Moines, Iowa, and the newcomer was rated the No. 6 punter in the nation and the state’s No. 10 overall recruit. A true athlete, Haack runs a 4.6 40-yard dash and had 69 receptions for 1,290 yards and 16 touchdowns while also taking a fake punt 70 yards for a touchdown.
Haack brings a rugby style of kicking to the table and is also a lefty, a fact that Graham believes can cause trouble for opposing punt returners. He had a long in high school of 60 yards and had a couple 70-yarders at some Kohl’s Kicking events with the wind behind him, despite the fact he has only been kicking since his junior year of high school.