Before the Appalachian State offense or defense take the field, usually they are preceded by one play. Whether that be a punt, kickoff or field goal attempt, special teams have one shot to get it right.
This season, ASU special teams have gotten a lot right.
Currently, ASU special teams are tied for first place in the 130-team Football Bowl Subdivision with four blocked kicks, are sixth in kickoff return yards at an average of 28.8 yards per return, 13th in punt return defense at 2.43 yards per punt, 17th in punt return average at 13.8 yards per, and most importantly, a 6-0 record halfway through the season.
A stat that reflects well on the special teams is that ASU is currently averaging 10.1 yards per point, the lowest ratio in FBS. The stat means that the highly-efficient ASU offense is often starting with great field position due to the work of its special teams.
ASU special teams coach Erik Link feels there are several components that make for successful special teams play.
“First and foremost, it starts with a dynamic returner that’s explosive with the ball in their hands, has a knack, has a feel for hitting the seams,” Link said. “We feel like we have multiple guys capable of doing that.”
Junior Thomas Hennigan is the primary punt returner. Hennigan currently averages 9.88 yards a return in 2019, with a long of 25. Junior Darrynton Evans primarily handles kickoff duties, averaging 30.71 yards a return. Evans and junior Jalen Virgil, who has one return on the season, each have a long kickoff return of 45 yards.
Link described directional punting as taking a different golf club out of the bag.
“A golfer is going to use a driver most times off the tee, but there’s some holes, whether it’s a Par 3, a short Par 4 or if it has a dogleg where you come up with a shorter club, and they’re going to use that club to their advantage. It’s the same exact principle with a punter, there’s different situations depending where you are on the field, they might have to pull out a different club so to speak and give us a chance to down a kick.”
However, there are 10 others App players on the field during kickoffs or punts who each have to do their job. Link said those 10 guys have to have a tenacious and aggressive mentality to sustain and finish blocks.
“We want to be elite in that unit and really be a kick cover team that we can be proud of … and really make a statement,” Link continued.
On punts, the App players going from offense to defense during the play can be set up for success by the job the punter does. Junior punter Xavier Subotsch, originally from Australia, is averaging 44.23 yards per punt, with 10 of his 26 punts going inside the 20 yard line.
“It’s a mentality,” Link said. “On special teams, we measure our success in two areas: we measure our success in field position and momentum plays. If we can pin our opponent inside the 10, that is certainly a momentum play. Statistics and analytics would certainly tell you that if anytime your opponent is starting inside the 10, their chances of scoring are very, very slim.”
On kickoffs, junior Chandler Staton averages 59.6 yards a kickoff and is four of five on field goals for the season. Over his career, Staton is perfect on extra points, making 127 straight. Against Coastal Carolina on Sept. 28, out of Staton’s nine kickoffs, eight went for touchbacks in the end zone.
“Specifically in the Coastal game, that’s a great advantage to have when he’s able to do that,” Link said.
Link said that kickoffs are game play specific, meaning that sometimes the kicks are going to be short of the end zone, while others are designed touchbacks to avoid putting the ball in the hands of a certain returner.
Defending a punt or kickoff takes a mentality and decision-making process that’s different from other aspects of the game.
“It’s understanding what the opponent is trying to do from a leverage block standpoint and then just playing with relentless effort and playing fast and physical, those are two words we always use with a kick coverage unit … if you make a mistake, make it full speed,” Link said.
Link said they also use the term “full-speed decisions” in talking about how to either make a block or avoid a block while running as fast as they can.
“We try to keep it simple, so our guys can play fast and play physical and can make full-speed decisions,” Link said.
Defending punts and kickoff returns is something Link has emphasized after seeing long returns given up earlier in the season, noting that it’s the first play of defense.
“We certainly want to excel in that area and improve,” Link said. “Against (Louisiana), at times we did a nice job and at times we didn’t and certainly didn’t cover to our standard … we certainly were much improved (versus ULM).”