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ASU wants special teams to be special in 2014

TEMPE, Ariz. — Todd Graham didn’t mince words.

“We have a lot of things to work on on special teams. That will be dealt with immediately and that will be something I take a personal interest in. That has killed our team,” the Sun Devils’ second-year head coach said moments after the Holiday Bowl.

Six weeks later, Graham, true to his word, announced a series of moves he hoped would right what had gone so wrong on special teams.

For starters, there would be a defensive special teams coach and an offensive special teams coach. In addition, Graham would have a major role in special teams coaching.

Keith Patterson was hired to handle special teams defense. He was also named defensive coordinator and linebackers coach.

Meanwhile, tight ends coach and recruiting coordinator Chip Long will guide the special teams offense.

Patterson’s number one goal on kickoffs is to pin the opponent inside its own 25-yard line.

“That just increases the chances for us to be able to get off the field defensively and make it tougher on the offenses,” he said.

Patterson, who coached the past two seasons at West Virginia, wants his unit to give up no more than 18 yards a return — which would be more than a three-yard improvement over 2013 — and record 50 touchbacks. Alex Garoutte had 39 touchbacks last year.

“I’ll promise you it’s going to help us defensively and help us as a team,” Patterson said Tuesday.

When it comes to punting, protection is the key. The Sun Devils had two kicks blocked last season.

Also settling on a punter is important. The Sun Devils used four, including quarterback Taylor Kelly, last season. Sophomore Matt Haack has impressed early in spring practice.

The return game is where ASU perhaps needs to see the biggest improvement.

Despite the number of highly skilled position players helping lead the Pac-12’s number-two scoring offense, the Sun Devils did very little offensively on special teams.

They ranked sixth in kickoff return yards and tied for eighth in punt return yards. And neither unit produced a touchdown.

“Kickoff return, that’s our first offensive play,” Long said. “We want to take it to the house.”

As evidenced last season, the role of special teams can never be overlooked. And while it’s always been a big point of emphasis ever since Graham and his staff arrived in the desert, the focus on those units is a bit more intense in 2014.

“Punt and kickoff cover are probably the two most important things because obviously you break a coverage that can turn the game. So, obviously we’re going to have our best players on (those units); really go through our fundamentals,” Long said. “What’s going to help us is we have a lot more depth coming in. We have a lot more players that fit that special teams mold. There’s no doubt in my mind we’re going to be a lot better on special teams.”