ASU football: ‘Old Guy’ Middlebrooks looking to contribute as returner

 

Junior wide receiver Kyle Middlebrooks (7) tries to run past a UA defender during the Sun Devils’ home game against the Wildcats on Sept. 5, 2012. Now a redshirt senior, Middlebrooks looks to mentor a reinvigorated special teams unit and be more productive on punt and kickoff returns. (Photo by Beth Easterbrook)

Junior wide receiver Kyle Middlebrooks (7) tries to run past a UA defender during the Sun Devils’ home game against the Wildcats on Sept. 5, 2012. Now a redshirt senior, Middlebrooks looks to mentor a reinvigorated special teams unit and be more productive on punt and kickoff returns. (Photo by Beth Easterbrook)

Redshirt senior running back Kyle Middlebrooks knows it’s been a long time.

ASU hasn’t had a punt or kickoff returned for a touchdown in its last 21 games. The last Sun Devil to do so was Rashad Ross, who opened the second half of a game at Colorado back on Oct. 13, 2012 by running back the kickoff from his own end zone 100 yards for a score.

In 2010 and 2011, ASU had four kickoff/punt return touchdowns each season, and has had having just one combined in the past two.

“That’s always in our minds, because especially the guys that have been here for a couple years, we always know that’s like our forte we need to get back to,” Middlebrooks said.

Middlebrooks said he expects to contribute on both punts and kickoffs, and has taken practice reps at both. While he has game experience on kickoffs — 35 career returns for 828 yards — (23.7 average), he has yet to field a punt for positive yardage outside of practice. He said there is an adjustment to returning punts because of the different spin on the ball.

ASU lost almost all of its returning experience from last season, leaving position battles to be won in the fall camp.

Along with Middlebrooks, freshman wide receiver Jalen Harvey and redshirt senior safety Damarious Randall took back punts in Monday’s practice, while redshirt junior wide receiver Jaelen Strong and junior defensive back Kweishi Brown were returning kickoffs.

Middlebrooks became a large part of the kickoff return game early in his career. The five-year veteran led the Sun Devils in kickoff returns as a freshman in 2010 and was second in 2011, though none were returned for scores. He missed last season with an ACL injury and played little the prior year.

“(The ACL injury) was pretty difficult, but the thing about it, I was really involved with the team,” Middlebrooks said. “It was kind of hard not being able to play, contribute, but I just stay positive about it.”

In the backfield, Middlebrooks may have been passed on the depth chart by newcomers, but he is happy to provide leadership at the position.

“They call me a veteran, an old guy, but I just mentor them up, teach them up, coach them up, try to show them the ropes because I’ve been here for a while,” Middlebrooks said. “A lot of new guys come in just don’t know what to expect.”

Additional notes:

According to reports from Devils Digest, ASUDevils.com and azcentral sports, ASU will unveil a new uniform on Aug. 18, which will be worn for a single regular season game. The Sun Devils wore uniforms with flame helmets against Notre Dame last year.

Junior running back D.J. Foster was wearing a green, no-contact jersey Monday. For the second half of last week, he was without a helmet. “He probably could have went today, but we’re going to be very careful,” ASU coach Todd Graham said.

Freshman Tyler Wiley is transitioning to a move to the defense. “I think that’s where he wants to play there,” Graham said.

Graham said junior defensive tackle Jaxon Hood will return to the team either tonight or tomorrow.

Graham also said freshman running back Kalen Ballage missed practice today because of an MRI.

Sophomore wide receiver Cameron Smith is no longer donning the green jersey and will resume full-contact action in practice.

Reach the reporter at Justin.Janssen@asu.edu or follow him on Twitter @jjanssen11