ASU's retooled special teams a welcomed breakthrough
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Whether they were mistake-prone and minimally impactful, special teams have been an issue pretty much since the start of coach Todd Graham's tenure at Arizona State.
But in a dominant win over Stanford last week, ASU finally had the special teams breakthrough it's been waiting for and put together its most complete effort in that phase under Graham.
"I just think it's a process like anything else," defensive coordinator and defensive special teams coach Keith Patterson said on Wednesday. "(We're) just trying to identify people that, just because you can do it in practice -- (we're) trying to get guys in the right positions on game day. It's probably the best overall (performance)."
The keys to the breakthrough: retooling and understanding.
During ASU's bye week, Patterson, who Graham hired this past offseason to help fix ASU's special teams, dissected the coverage units. Against UCLA, the Sun Devils gave up a 100-yard kickoff return; against USC, they gave up a touchdown on a punt return. ASU's kickoff and punt return defense ranked near the bottom of the Pac-12.
Something had to be done. Patterson went to work.
"Something that's been so good for us over the years all of a sudden wasn't working," Patterson said. "So you have to sit back and look at it like 'It might not be the kids.' You've got to look at yourself and what we're doing. So I thought, 'Well, obviously there's a disconnect in what we're trying to get accomplished.'
"So I just sat there over the break, sat down and said, 'I don't like what we're doing, let's change it,' and we did. I really think it's going to pay huge dividends."
Players on the coverage units, Patterson said, are now more comfortable and swarm to the ball better. Stanford managed just 81 return yards -- 95 on kickoff and minus-14 on punt returns, the latter of which came on an uncharacteristic mistake by Stanford punt returner Ty Montgomery.
Montgomery entered the game ranked sixth in the nation in yards per punt return (21.6), and Graham called him "the best in the country" at it. Naturally, he was a point of emphasis.
"We said it in the game plan: The bottom line is it's going to come down to Montgomery," Patterson said. "I think that forced a little bit more focus and concentration."
Montgomery's only punt return attempt resulted in a fumble, which ASU recovered to set up the touchdown that gave the Sun Devils a 14-0 second-quarter lead. That -- coupled with the returns ASU had given up previously -- is where the increased understanding came in.
"It was a great teaching moment because now they understand if we take that same focus and same concentration and same passion into special teams each and every week we can create field position, we can score, set up scores," Patterson said. "I think it was just the kids starting to understand the importance of how special teams can affect a game."
Along with the retooled coverage units and increased awareness of special teams' impact, a few specialists have emerged as difference-makers. Sophomore kicker Zane Gonzalez has been about as solid as he was last year, so far making 9 of 11 field goal attempts, including four against Stanford.
"Zane is just automatic," Graham said. "And every game I'll go 'God, he acts like he's about half asleep, is he OK?' They say 'Coach, that's the way he is.' It doesn't faze him."
Senior running back Kyle Middlebrooks has over the past two games given ASU life on its return units, which were previously non-factors. Middlebrooks took over kickoff returns against USC and ran his first out 47 yards to midfield. Against Stanford, his 32-yard return in the fourth quarter led to a field goal and a 23-10 lead. He also took over punt return duties.
"Middlebrooks is just a monster," Graham said after the game. "It's all about their heart and a person's will and how bad they want to do it. He wants to do that so bad. Now, the other 10 guys feed off that and they want to block for the guy. So I'm really excited about him."
Lastly, there's punter Matt Haack. The sophomore struggled last season and at times lost the job. But this year has shown he can be an impact kicker. His 42.7 yards per punt rank fourth in the Pac-12, and it was his booming 54-yarder that led to Montgomery's fumble.
"That surprised probably everybody but me," Patterson said. "I sit here and watch him do it day after day after day, you know, 4-1/2 or 5-second hang times in practice. He just has to get to where he does that on a more consistent basis, and that's what I've challenged him with."
Patterson added that ASU's deep snapping issues have been resolved, with walk-on freshman Mitchell Fraboni taking over duties, and that should help Haack be more consistent.
ASU's special team's units, of course, must show they can sustain success week to week before a full breakthrough can be declared, but things appear to be trending in the right direction. Graham has stressed for three seasons that the Sun Devils must win special teams each week, and it appears now they may be in position to do so on a regular basis.
-- Quarterback Taylor Kelly spoke to the media Wednesday and said he is 100 percent healthy and ready to start against Washington.
-- Junior Antonio Longino's move from Devil-backer to starting will linebacker created some depth chart changes, at least based on what reporters saw Wednesday. Freshman D.J. Calhoun, the previous starter at will, is now a backup to Laiu Moeakiola at spur. Previous spur backup Christian Sam, also a freshman, is now Longino's backup but still gets some reps at spur. Redshirt sophomore Carlos Mendoza, previously Calhoun's backup, now works at second-team sam behind Salamo Fiso.
-- Tight end De'Marieya Nelson practiced in a green non-contact jersey Wednesday but remained involved. His injury, which was disclosed, appears minor.