Special teams have been the weak spot in Todd Graham’s ASU teams since he arrived prior to the 2012 season. The kick-off and punt return teams have been unproductive, kickoff coverage has been spotty, and since Josh Hubner’s departure after 2012, the punt team has really struggled.
After the 2014 season, Todd Graham brought in Shawn Slocum, who had 9 years of experience coaching special teams in the NFL, as the Special Teams Coordinator, to try to right the ship. With the 2015 regular season schedule now complete, we can take a look at ASU’s 2015 special teams’ performance and try to determine if the hire produced improved results.
First, let’s look at one of the squads that have caused the most heartburn for ASU fans – the kickoff team. According to the NCAA’s official 2015 statistics, ASU’s opponents averaged 26.83 yards per kickoff return, good for 126th in FBS. That doesn’t look good – in fact, it looks downright awful. But is it really? A closer look reveals that ASU only defended 18 kickoff returns, mostly due to Zane Gonzalez’ 75-percent touchback percentage, which ranked second in FBS. Only 4 teams defended fewer, and the average number of kickoff returns defended was 40. Why is this important? Well, we know that ASU gave up one long kickoff return (against Oregon), and since ASU defended so few returns overall, this one long return skewed ASU’s opponents’ yards-per-kickoff-return pretty heavily.
We should also consider that the opponents’-yards-per-kickoff-return probably isn’t a very good statistic anyway. What’s really important is where the opponent starts their drive after a kickoff, not how long the return was, and the NCAA’s kickoff return defense statistic completely disregards this.
Think about it this way, it’s common sense that it’s better to kick the ball to the goal-line and tackle the returner at the 25 yard-line than it is to kick the ball to the 10 yard-line and tackle the returner at the 30. However, the NCAA’s kickoff return defense stat would lead us to believe that the latter is better. “Does someone keep an opponents’ average-starting-field-position-after-a-kickoff statistic,” you ask?
Not that I’m aware of, but there is a pretty close proxy. Football Outsiders keeps special teams efficiency statistics, which are the per-possession scoring value generated by a team’s special teams units. For 2015, ASU’s kickoff efficiency was .01, which ranked 68th in FBS. So, ASU’s kickoff team was actually quite average, not nearly as bad as it originally appeared.
How does this compare to last season? Well, it’s actually a little worse. In 2014, ASU had a kickoff efficiency of .05. However, it appears that what’s going on here is that ASU quite happily traded a small amount of efficiency for a reduced amount of risk. Now that touchbacks on kickoffs go out to the 25 yard-line, touchbacks really aren’t that efficient. They do, however, completely eliminate the risk of a long return.
Now let’s look at some other special teams statistics. ASU allowed 12.4 yards per punt return, 111th in FBS. Again, this isn’t really a good statistic, for the same reason the kickoff defense statistic isn’t. ASU’s net punting, which is a much better stat, was 39.39, which ranked 26th. ASU also had a punt efficiency of -.02, which ranked 51st. In 2014, ASU’s net punting and punt efficiency were 36.69 and -.04, respectively, indicating that ASU showed some significant improvement over last year.
One area where there wasn’t much improvement was with the return teams. ASU had a kick-off return efficiency of .01, equal to that of 2014, and a punt return efficiency of .02, slightly below 2014’s .05. The punt return statistic is one where the more traditional stat might help us see the picture more clearly, though. ASU actually increased its yards-per-punt-return from 3.67 in 2014 to 6.78 this year. The most likely culprit for the discrepancy between the two stats is ASU’s defense, whose struggles likely resulted in ASU fielding more punts deep in its own territory, reducing the scoring value per return.
Lastly, let’s look at the field goal team. Zane Gonzalez made 22-of-29 field goals, or 76-percent. This is slightly below his previous career average of 82-percent, but still pretty solid. ASU had a field goal efficiency of .08, below its 2014 mark of .29.
To sum up, ASU did show some improvement on special teams in the areas that most needed it. The punt team improved its net punting significantly, and slightly increased its efficiency, while the kickoff team drastically reduced ASU’s exposure to the risk of long kick returns. The next step is for the Sun Devils to improve their return teams, something they’re likely to focus on this off-season.