For ASU fans, nothing was more frustrating in 2014 than the special teams play. It was frustrating for the coaching staff and the players too. Some portion of the kicking game played a big part in all four of ASU’s losses last season. Special teams also almost cost the Sun Devils a couple of their victories as well. (Wisconsin,UCLA)
After the Holiday Bowl debacle against Texas Tech, coach Graham promised to make special teams a priority “immediately”. In that game, after ASU marched down the field in the second half to get the game within 7 points, the Red Raiders returned the ensuing kickoff for a touchdown. It deflated ASU and basically put the game away. As mentioned before, special teams played a significant role in that game and the two losses to Stanford.
So, coach Graham sprang into action. He fired special teams coordinator Joe Lorig and hired a longtime friend and defensive coach to run the coverage teams. Coach Patterson also coaches the front 7 on defense.
As it pertains to the special teams issues, we’re not talking about a couple of field goals hooking to the left. We are talking about multiple breakdowns in kickoff coverage, punt coverage, punt returns, long snapping, blocking assignments and of course, some shanked punts. It was a nightmare in the kicking game. And those breakdowns seemed to come at the absolute wrong time versus the wrong opponent.
Everybody knows this had to be corrected. Besides simplifying some of the schemes, perhaps repping them more and thereby putting more emphasis on the kicking game, the ASU coaches hope that special teams will be an asset this year, rather than a liability.
One obvious change in philosophy for the special teams units is personnel. Since his arrival here at ASU, coach Graham has played starters on special teams. This fall, however, he has finally admitted that he may use substitutes for special teams. It won’t necessarily be “benchwarmers” in the truest sense. But he appears to be leaning towards using some players that are 2nd or 3rd stringers in order to get fresh bodies on the field. As the season wears down, sometimes a guy that plays 50-70 snaps won’t be as effective on kick coverage.
Whether there is a complete turnaround in special teams or not will remain to be seen. But it’s a good bet that the kicking game won’t sink the Sun Devils this year. All of the specialists return (kicker, punter, long-snapper) The new consciousness to the importance of special teams play and coach Graham’s undivided attention almost guarantee improvement in this phase of the game.