December 16, 2008

Season review: Special teams

spe-cial (spe-shel) adj. distinguished by some unusual quality ; especially : being in some way superior

In 2008, the only thing distinguishable about the Arizona State special teams was the fact that they didn't make any game changing plays the way they did a year before. Also, the special teams were far from superior.

ASU didn't return a kickoff or a punt for a touchdown this season.

The reigning Lou Groza Award winner was nowhere near his 2007 form.

The Sun Devils didn't have a Pac-10 caliber punter on the squad and the team had two punts blocked.

One game was lost on a blocked field goal attempt.

And a 52-yard punt returned for a touchdown by UA was the nail in the coffin that sealed ASU's fate in the Territorial Cup.

The special teams unit was from special.

However, even with those major blunders, the Sun Devils special teams unit was above average. Just not special.

Kicker Thomas Weber did not recapture his 2007 success, but he still had a solid season connecting on 19 of his 25 attempts. Three of the six misses were due to blocked kicks.

Also, Kyle Williams led the Pac-10 averaging 17 yards per punt return. His longest was a 64-yarder that set up a field goal against UCLA.

But when the offense is so anemic, the hope is that the special teams can make some plays to put points on the board and that just wasn't the case this season.

Early in the year, Weber looked like he could go back-to-back on the Groza Award, making his first five field goal attempts including a 49-yarder against UNLV. His accuracy was dead-on and he was easily clearing the crossbar with every kick.

But then came the play that sent ASU, and Weber, into a tailspin.

On Sept. 13, ASU had inexplicably allowed UNLV to force overtime and take a 23-20 lead. Weber lined up for a 35-yard field goal that would have sent the game into a second overtime, but immediately after the ball left his foot UNLV defensive lineman Malo Tuamua got a hand on it ending the game. The snap, hold and kick all looked good, but it appeared Adam Tello completely missed his block allowing Tuamua to get into the backfield untouched.

After that Weber hit a slump, the first of his career.

He missed his next three field goals, and none were even remotely close.

Two were blocked because they came off of Weber's foot too low, and the other sputtered off his foot before falling way short of the goal posts.

Then, Weber turned it around against Oregon State making four of his five attempts and only missed one more the rest of the season.

Weber also connected on 29 of his 30 extra point attempts.

The Sun Devils do not have punter on scholarship and Weber was forced to take on those duties for most of the season as well.

He was the team's punter through the first seven games of the year before coach Dennis Erickson handed the duties over to Trevor Hankins. At the time, Weber was struggling mightily with his kicking and the hope was that relieving him of punting duties would help him get back on track.

The problem was Hankins was very inconsistent with his punting and Weber was named the punter after just a one-game sabbatical.

On the year, Weber averaged 41.4 yards per punt and had a long of 61. However, he often had some of his longest punts when ASU needed him to have a high, hanging kick the team could down deep in the opponent's territory.

Weber also handled ASU's kickoffs and eights of his 60 kickoffs went for touchbacks.

Williams earned Pac-10 honorable mention for his returning in 2008.

He was very consistent, but never really broke the big one to give the Sun Devil offense the spark it desperately needed. He had the opportunities, but several times chose the wrong lane to run through keeping him from making a game changing play.

Williams' was the team's primary punt returner for the first seven games of the year, but he suffered a concussion against Oregon and Nate Kimbrough took over punt returning duties a week later at Oregon State.

In that game, Kimbrough returned three punts for 85 yards, an average of 28 yards per return.

When Williams returned a week later the two split returns for the remainder of the season.

Williams was also the team primary kickoff return man and he averaged 23.3 yards per return. His longest run back went for 46 yards.

ASU's opponents averaged just 9.6 yards per punt return and 21.6 yards per kickoff return.

Grade: B- While Weber fell short of expectations, he still had a good season for a college kicker and Williams was very consistent. However, ASU needed more than what it got from its special teams unit because of its offense's struggles. Also, the lack of a true punter really hurt the Sun Devils as they couldn't count on Weber to pin opponents deep in their own territory. While ASU defended punts fairly well but had several lapses allowing two to get blocked and one returned to the house. Luckily for ASU, Weber and Williams will be back next year and both should have better seasons.

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