Much of Arizona State’s success this season rests on the performance of first year-coach Herm Edwards and the dynamic offensive duo of Manny Wilkins and N’Keal Harry, but the Sun Devils will be counting on their two most important legs just as much.
Sophomore kicker Brandon Ruiz and junior punter Michael Sleep-Dalton are each entering their second full seasons on the ASU special teams unit, and with a year of familiarity comes increased confidence from the kickers.
Ruiz and Sleep-Dalton were each placed in difficult situations last season, having to replace kicker Zane Gonzalez and punter Matt Haack. Ruiz was just a first-year player coming off his senior season at Gilbert Williams Field, and Sleep-Dalton was just one season removed from playing junior college.
Although Sleep-Dalton is a few years older than Ruiz, their respective situations were not dissimilar entering 2017. Both had big shoes to fill and a lot to prove — and there’s still a lot to prove this season.
“Last year, it was like we were both first-year players,” Ruiz said. “It wasn’t like I walked in and he led me to do anything because he had been here for some time … so it was kind of hard to do that because he’s older than me, but we’re at the same level.”
Ruiz was one of the top high school kickers in the 2016 class and made a late change in commitment from Alabama to attend his hometown school. In his first season, Ruiz made 19 of 27 field goals and posted a long of 52 yards.
The 52-yarder came in last season’s opener against New Mexico State and in his first career NCAA field-goal attempt, making him the first ASU kicker to have his first field goal go for more than 50 yards.
The winner of two Pac-12 Special Teams Player of the Week honors last season, Ruiz posted a game-winner against Oregon and connected on another 52-yarder to knock off then-No. 5 Washington at Sun Devil Stadium.
Ruiz was named to the preseason watch list for the Groza Award this season, which is handed out annually to the NCAA’s top placekicker. Ruiz welcomes the hype.
“I embrace all of it,” Ruiz said. “I keep it all in my mind, and it makes me want to go out there and work harder. I want to win those awards.”
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Ruiz said he still regularly hangs out at Williams Field practices and has a close relationship with coach Steve Campbell. For the second-year kicker, it’s a way to keep his physical and mental conditioning sharp.
“I go kick there and play spring ball and everything,” Ruiz said of going back to Williams Field. “Everybody knows me there and coach Steve Campbell is a big fan of me and everything I do. … He’s a really good motivator for me, and I know some of the kids on the team.
“They always ask, ‘How’s ASU?’ or just general college questions because some of them are being recruited, so I help them out.”
Sleep-Dalton’s hometown of Geelong, Victoria in Australia is a little bit more of a trip from Tempe than Ruiz’s trek to Gilbert, but the punter is just as true to his roots.
Sleep-Dalton is a rugby-style punter and was trained at Pro-Kick Australia, the same organization where former Utah kicker Tom Hackett worked. Oh, and he can punt with both legs.
As a sophomore, Sleep-Dalton struggled at times but still averaged 39 yards per punt and sent nine of his 62 punts over 50 yards. Sleep-Dalton points to a lack of health as a reason for his inconsistencies last season,
“I’m just trying to look after my body,” Sleep-Dalton said. “I had a frustrating time last year with me hurting myself right around this time last year. I didn’t have the season I wanted to, so I’ve just made sure I’m ready and that my body can do the things I want it to do.”
Sleep-Dalton said he adopted some pilates and yoga workouts this summer while at an internship in Miami and feels as confident and as healthy as ever.
The one question mark on special teams is sophomore long snapper Riley John, who takes over for Mitchell Fraboni.
John is entering his first season as long snapper, but Ruiz and Sleep-Dalton don’t seem to be concerned about the new starter.
Still, ASU’s two-pronged kicking unit knows the pressures that awaits this season. Both Ruiz and Sleep-Dalton know their roles and the impact they can have on a game.
“Special teams is a huge deal because you only get one chance,” Ruiz said. “Offenses get three plays to go 10 yards, but here, if one thing goes wrong, that’s what it comes down to. You don’t get a re-do.
“There’s a lot of pressure. You’ve got to be confident to do it and I’m very confident in my abilities right now.”
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