(Photo: Brett Deckert/WCSN)
As the old football adage goes, “any drive that ends with a kick is a successful one.”
At Arizona State this season, it’s a safe bet that almost every one of those kicks will be successful too.
Brandon Ruiz and Michael Sleep-Dalton couldn’t be much more different on paper. One is in his teens, one the other in his mid-20s; one is 5-foot-10, four inches shorter than the other; the two even grew up on different continents.
What they have in common though is much more important: the ability to replace the top talent lost from last year’s team in the kicking department.
In 2016, the senior special teams duo of place-kicker Zane Gonzalez and punter Matt Haack was a bright spot on a disappointing team. Despite both All-Conference stars departing for the NFL this summer, a new tandem made of Ruiz and Sleep-Dalton has developed all the ability needed to fill their shoes.
“We just replaced the two best (kickers) I’ve coached, and possibly the best that’s played the game,” head coach Todd Graham said of Gonzalez and Haack. “In saying that, I think we owe a great deal of gratitude to those two guys because we have two very good guys behind them.”
Ruiz, the Arizona-born true freshman who has dominated the place-kicking battle during fall camp, doesn’t look much like a player who can kick a ball 60 yards, let alone someone who is able to put the ball between the uprights from such a distance. Standing at just 5-foot-10 and weighing only 165 lbs, the freshman looks more like a member of the training staff than a high school All-American.
Yet, the Williams Field High School product has wasted no time taking over as Gonzalez’s successor as starting place-kicker and kick-off man on this year’s team. During his senior year of high school, Ruiz made 17 of his 20 field goal attempts, including a career-long 58-yarder. During ASU’s trip to Camp Tontozona, he drilled three straight 60-yard tries during a pre-practice warm up.
“I’ve always had Zane (Gonzalez), so I’ve never really experienced another freshman kicker,” senior starting long snapper Mitchell Fraboni said. “(He) is doing really well for being so young.”
Michael Sleep-Dalton, on the other hand, needed a far different path to wind up in Tempe, one that took him thousands of miles from home.
Unlike his teenage place kicking teammate, the 24-year-old Sleep-Dalton has made many stops on his way to ASU. Following in his cousin Cameron Johnston’s footsteps, Sleep-Dalton left his native Australia to pursue a career in punting. Like Johnston, a former Ohio State punter now with the Philadelphia Eagles, Sleep-Dalton attended the ProKick Australia academy, notorious for its success in producing American football punters from an Australian rules football-playing country.
Upon arriving in the United States, Sleep-Dalton impressed at the JUCO level with City College of San Francisco in 2015. His 41-yard average caught the attention of top division one schools, including the Sun Devils, whom he committed to as part of their 2016 recruiting class.
In his second year in the Valley, Sleep-Dalton looks ready to continue a growing pattern of dominant Sun Devil kickers, using his own style and unique techniques.
“He’s more versatile (than other American kickers),” Fraboni said of his punter. “He can do different things. If something does go wrong he always has the ability to get the ball off quick, and he does a great job with his awareness on what kicks to use when. He can place the ball; if he wants to place it on the five (yard-line), he can place it on the five. He’s a natural.
“We get along great. The key to everything is communication,” Fraboni added of his relationship with Sleep-Dalton. “Being able to talk to him in the locker room versus on the field, it’s still the same, we still joke around, we still get our work done. But when things need to be serious, they are serious.”
In his first public exposure to fans this fall during the Camp T scrimmage, Sleep-Dalton backed up his lofty reputation, pinning back both offenses with a variety of traditional and rugby-styled kicks. He averaged more than 48 yards on his eight punts that day.
“I thought one of the big standouts was (Sleep-Dalton),” Graham said. “He’s got a lot more he brings to the table than just conventional punting.”
The Sun Devils benefitted from Haack’s great punting last year, ranking fourth in the Pac-12 with a +2 field position margin, while forcing opponents to start inside their own 29-yard-line on average. Those stats helped the current Miami Dolphin win second-team All-Pac-12 honors.
Question marks on both sides of the ball will ensure that the field position battle will again be important for ASU this year, a responsibility that will fall to the transfer sophomore from Australia’s southern coast.
“Having the expertise on knowing not to over kick, or over snap, and make sure to work on certain things instead of wasting our time doing extraneous activities, we can focus on little things that will make us better,” Fraboni said.
Each time the promising Ruiz or Sleep-Dalton take the field, they will not only be relying on their talent, but on their proven long-snapper to deliver them the ball.
“We’ve been very spoiled to have the best deep-snapper,” Graham said of Fraboni. “I don’t know how all that works, but I know he’s the best that I’ve ever had.”
Fraboni, a returning starter from Mountain Pointe High School in Phoenix, is the one constant in the kicking game equation. His consistency has helped his kickers become comfortable in their new roles, a talent he has taken years to master.
“It’s more telling yourself, ‘I can do this,’” Fraboni explained as a key to his success as a long snapper. “There have been certain things that (special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum) has told me to do that, at first, seem really uncomfortable, but I would do it and it would be a good snap. From then on I (realized) I could do this, so it doesn’t matter, just keep working at it and you will be comfortable at some point.”
Behind the experience of Fraboni, and raw talents of Ruiz and Sleep-Dalton, the Sun Devils are set for another season of special teams dominance, thanks to their new pair of kicking stars on the verge of their first tastes of major college football.