Video by Logan Newman | Sports Reporter
Day four of ASU football’s preseason practice showed a bright glimpse of light in an area that needs much improvement: Punters looked good in the short time they were available for media viewing.
Dylan Keagins, a walk-on punter, started slow with a couple soft kicks. He got hot though, and his punts culminated in a kick that ended up going out of bounds inside the 1-yard line.
Sophomore Matt Haack had a couple long punts from inside the endzone, then moved the ball back to punt downfield. Both of his kicks landed inside the 20, with his final one getting knocked down by a defender inside the 3-yard line.
When asked if he’s seen more consistency, linebackers and special teams coach Keith Patterson smiled.
“It seems like it,” he said. “Kicking in just a helmet… that’s one thing. But to do it with your pads on and pressure coming at you, that’s another.”
He said Haack’s been playing well. The punter said they had been working hard over the offseason.
“Last year, obviously we had our ups and downs but ever since the spring I’ve been working more on consistency,” Haack said.
Consistency will be important — in 2013, the combined average of the punters at ASU was 33.2 yards per punt, which placed them 119th out of the 123 teams.
Patterson didn’t play down the importance of the kickers’ roles on the team.
“Those guys are vital in the success of what we’re trying to accomplish in special teams,” he said.
Standards are being raised for the special teams unit as a whole, and Patterson’s adjusting the way he teaches the phases of the plays.
“I don’t do a lot of all-out full coverage stuff,” he said. “I try to break it down, just like you do offense and defense, break it down to its simplest element and then put it all together.”
The defensive line needed some work. At practice, there were nine penalties, six of them offside calls.
“That’s the most penalties we’ve ever had in any practice (since I’ve been here),” coach Todd Graham said.
Patterson said penalties come from a lack of focus.
“We had a long day yesterday,” he said, referring to practice, meetings, weight lifting and a walkthrough. “You have to hit that restart button and get focused for that next practice.”
The defensive line isn’t all bad, though. Graham said freshman defensive lineman Tashon Smallwood has stood out since gearing up in pads.
“He’s what I thought he was and maybe a little bit more,” Graham said.
Some of the duty to fix the line will fall on whoever plays the Devilbacker role. Redshirted senior De’Marieya Nelson is one of the players stepping into this role, and he’s earned high praise from Graham and Patterson.
“Unblockable,” Graham called Nelson.
Graham said he expects to use Nelson at Devilbacker and then give him a package on offense similar to his workload last season, which was about 12 plays each game.
“From what we’ve seen so far, he’s one of the most explosive guys on the field,” Patterson said.
Reach the reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @Logan_Newsman