A look at the Sun Devils special teams at spring camp.
Nathaniel Fain, Arizona Republic

As the 2019 football season approaches we continue our Arizona State position-by-position series.

Today:  Special teams 

Previously: Wide receivers/tight ends, offensive linedefensive backsrunning backsdefensive line, linebackersquarterbacks


There are a lot of moving parts when it comes to special teams. It isn’t just about how many field goals a team makes or the net yardage on punts. It’s how well opponents are covered too. There are also more subtle nuances of the game such as how deep your kickoffs go, who is handling long snapping duties and what field position you’re putting the defense in.

The Sun Devils were adequate in most phases of special teams according to coach Shawn Slocum, but he says adequate isn’t good enough if the they want to be among the Pac-12’s elite teams.

The Sun Devils kicking game was solid last season. Junior placekicker Brandon Ruiz was 45 of 45 on PATs and converted 18 of 22 field goal tries with a best of 49 yards. Two of his four misses were from 50 yards or further.

He averaged 61.6 yards per kickoff with 48 touchbacks on 78 kicks, which Slocum says is about average. Slocum said Ruiz added some muscle and worked on refining his technique, which was evident in spring drills.

Michael Sleep-Dalton handled punting duties, averaging 43.8 yards on 59 tries with 19 kicks landing inside the 20 and 10 of more than 50 yards, but he pursued a graduate transfer and wound up at Iowa.

That has cleared the way for Michael Turk (6-1, 220), nephew of former NFL punter Matt Turk, who sat out last year after a transfer from Louisiana-Lafayette. He is still relatively new to the position but Slocum already sees NFL potential.

Matt Turk played under Herm Edwards when he was the head coach of the Jets so Michael’s move to Tempe is not a real surprise.

Wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk (6-1, 195) was the primary return man with 15 for 339 yards (33.6 average on kickoffs and 11 punt returns for 67 yards). He struggled early but made progress over the course of the season and staked his claim to that role this season with an impressive showing there in ASU’s 31-20 loss to Fresno State in the Las Vegas Bowl.

Slocum says right now he is leaning toward using Aiyuk on punt return with redshirt freshman wide receiver Geordon Porter (6-2, 180) handling kickoffs.

Other returning players who could factor into return duties are sophomore Aashari Crosswell (6-0, 190) and junior Chase Lucas (6-0, 170). Both are starters in the secondary.

Three questions to be answered

1.  What is the biggest area ASU could use improvement? Coverage of both punts and kickoffs is an area in which both Slocum and Edwards concede they need to improve. The addition of Turk will go a long way toward that. He averaged 55 yards per punt in the spring, with 4.7 seconds of hang time. “That’s going to give our guys time to get down there and be in position to make the play,” he said.

2. Who else could be used on return units? This unit may be the one most in flux because much will determine what players are starting full-time on offense or defense. Typically the best players on special teams tend to be wide receivers or defensive backs.

3. Who could be the unsung standout of the unit? Most of the attention goes on the player with the ball, but Slocum singles out wide receiver Frank Darby who could be used in a return role. He is perhaps the team’s best blocker on the return team, a contribution on special teams that is often overlooked.

About the newcomers

Turk is the most prominent newcomer, just because he will be expected to fill a starting role right away, but there are others who could emerge as key players elsewhere. Turk will also be the holder on place-kick attempts.

The Sun Devils also have a handful of incoming freshmen who could see time as return men but much of that will depend on what happens when fall camp commences. Among those are twins Keon and Kejuan Markham out of Long Beach Poly (Calif.), Jordan Clark 5-11, 170), out of University Lab in Baton Rouge, La. and Willie Harts (6-0, 170) out of Pittsburg (Calif.).

Those players are all part of a deep ASU secondary so if they don’t work their way into considerable time on defense they may be a big help elsewhere.

About the coach

Slocum is the longest tenured member of the ASU staff, heading into his fifth year. He was on staff for the final three years of previous coach Todd Graham’s tenure, serving as associate head coach and special teams coordinator.

He was one of just three holdovers — the others being Rob Likens, who was receivers coach but now is offensive coordinator, and well as tight ends coach Donnie Yantis.

Slocum worked for the Green Bay Packers from 2006 to 2010 with that run highlighted by a Super Bowl win in 2010. He worked with special teams in his time there as well.

Shawn’s father, R.C. Slocum, was head coach for Texas A&M from 1989 to 2002 and is the winningest coach in Texas A&M football history.

From the coach

“We’re going to be much better on special teams and we have to be if we want to take the next step and contend for a conference championship. We feel good about the athletes we have. It’s a matter of finding the right guys,” Slocum said. “Making some big plays can help you flip the field in your favor and those are things that can win you games.”

Reach the reporter at [email protected] or 602 444-4783. Follow her on Twitter @MGardnerSports.

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