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Arizona State Sun Devils look to correct ‘unacceptable’ special teams play

Arizona State head coach Todd Graham watches his team before an NCAA college football game on Saturday, Sept. 5, 2015, in Houston. (AP Photo/George Bridges)

TEMPE, Ariz. – There was nothing special about the Arizona State special teams in last Saturday’s season-opening loss.

“Special teams really killed us,” head coach Todd Graham said moments after the 38-17 defeat to Texas A&M.

His opinion changed little after watching the film.

“(We) played about as poorly as we can play on punt and kickoff return; left guys unblocked and just coaching assignments and things like that, that we’d done pretty well on,” he said this week.

There was the 79-yard punt return for a touchdown, three penalties, including two for hitting the punter though the second-quarter running into call was declined, and five first-half punts that failed to travel at least 40 yards.

It was not the performance expected, especially after the unit was overhauled in the offseason, including the hiring of Shawn Slocum, who brought with him almost a decade worth of NFL experience as the Sun Devils new special teams coordinator.

“Yeah, it was really surprising to me, and I think it was surprising to Shawn, too,” Graham said.  “We have spent twice as much time, double the time, on special teams than we’ve spent in the past in meetings and on the field.  And we’ve executed pretty well.  I mean, we have just kick punted the ball like unbelievably in camp.

“You know, I’ve still got all the confidence in the world.  We are more complicated.  We’re running more things, and we had some critical errors.  Like you’ve got a guy (redshirt freshman Coltin Gerhart) roughing the punter and he’s not supposed to be rushing the punter, and he’s giving extraordinary effort.  But that’s, you know, you’ve got young guys and that’s coaching.  That’s not the players’ fault.  That’s our fault.”

So, back to the drawing board?  Hardly.

“I have a lot of confidence in where we’re at,” Graham said.  “I tell you one thing; (Slocum) is doing a hell of a job working them and teaching them and coaching them.  I tell you, I’ve learned and I’ve ran the special teams here pretty much since we’ve been here, and it hasn’t always been horrible contrary to what people say.”

While Graham has led ASU to back-to-back 10-win seasons, he’s also changed special teams coaches in each of the past two seasons.

Yet despite the Week 1 struggles, Graham pointed to several positive special teams play, including kickoff coverage, kicker Zane Gonzalez (23-yard FG, 2-for-2 PAT) and punter Matt Haack, who placed four of his 10 punts inside the 20-yard line.

Graham added he’d like to see more starters on special teams, specifically mentioning senior cornerbacks Kweishi Brown and Lloyd Carrington, against Saturday’s opponent, Cal Poly of the FCS.

“We thought the other people could handle it, but we made some critical errors,” he said.  “If you asked my opinion, that is as poorly as we’ve played on special teams and that’s unacceptable.  A lot of that is guys just missed assignments and things like that, and there are some more—probably what we’re doing is a little bit more complex than what we’ve done in the past, and it’s about us teaching it.

“Ninety percent of what I’ve seen on film is coaching.  But we feel good moving forward.  Obviously our guys are everything that we’re working for is intact, and we’ve got to have action, not just want it or talk about it.  It’s about doing it.”

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