(Photo: ASU Athletics)
The Arizona State Sun Devils lost only four games during a 2013 season that earned Todd Graham Pac-12 Coach of the Year honors. Half of those losses came to the Stanford Cardinal, who won the Pac-12 and represented the conference at the Rose Bowl.
According to Graham, one factor that was a definite advantage for Stanford in 2013 was superior special teams, and the battle in that aspect will surely prove to be a large deciding factor in the 2014 tilt between the two teams. Given the struggles ASU has had so far in 2014 at winning the special teams battle, there’s obvious reason for concern, but Graham is confident that the team has made strides.
That is, in all but one aspect, one that has proven costly.
“Well we think we’ve made a lot [of progress],” Graham said. “But if you punt the ball line drive right to the top returner it’s not going to be good. You can try to fix all that, but you just can’t do that.”
That exact issue dropped the Sun Devils into a 7-0 hole early against the USC Trojans one week ago. On Matt Haack’s first punt of the game, he delivered a punt that had a hangtime of about 3.5 seconds before landing in the hands of USC’s dangerous return threat, Nelson Agholor, leaving this type of space for the First-Team All-Pac-12 receiver to work with:
While there was an opportunity for a few players to make a tackle, the hangtime of a punt from Haack should be about a second longer, giving the Sun Devils coverage unit more time to close that distance. Realistically, the punt coverage unit was as well placed as they could be in the situation.
“I don’t care if it goes 60 [yards], I just want 40 yards and no return,” Graham said.
That was essentially the result of each of Haack’s other five punts on the day, which traveled 41, 47, 51, 29 and 38 yards, and had returns of 0, 0, 3, 0 and 2 yards, respectively.
Similar issues have plagued the kickoff unit as well, as Alex Garoutte has sometimes struggled to get the distance and/or ball placement necessary to help the coverage unit get in the right place to make plays on the return. As such, the Sun Devils rank 116th in opposing kick returns.
“We just need consistency, even on our kickoff, our issues on kickoff has been the kick,” Graham said. “We’ve got to get the kick located and get the hangtime that we need and we think we’ve made progress.”
That progress will be put to the test against a Stanford special teams unit that ranks sixth in the nation in punt return average and 20th in kickoff return average. That is due mostly to the contributions of senior Ty Montgomery, who was a consensus All-American in 2013 for his play as a return specialist.
If Garoutte can consistently kick high, deep kickoffs into the endzone at Sun Devil Stadium and Haack can keep punts in the air for more than four seconds, the ASU coverage units have shown signs of enough growth to be in the right spots to make plays.
“Down the stretch we’ve got to win special teams in every game,” Graham said. “That’s the first check next to 100 percent ball security.”