Close to Takeoff: Slocum, Thomas locking aspects into place
There’s a shootout going on in Tempe, but it’s not the old western duels that dominate cinema. This is a faceoff between a pair of rocket legs and the vertical yellow zone in front of them.
Redshirt freshman Jace Feely and true freshman Carter Brown are neck-and-neck in Arizona State’s starting placekicking role competition. It’s a storyline that did not quite rise to the front line of the position battle discussion, with the quarterback group receiving an intense amount of scrutiny. But now that Emory Jones has been named the starter, the other areas of the roster are following suit in a similar fashion to lock down the top player at each position.
Special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum remained noncommittal in giving either kicker the edge.
“I want to say that I think it’s a good competition,” Slocum said. “Both of them have done some really good things. Today, I thought that they were a little inconsistent. But they both improved quite a bit. And so, you know, we can likely have two guys doing it. And no one says you have to just have one guy in college football so they’ll both keep working.”
Rotating kickers based on range comfort might be ambitious, but that’s not Slocum’s plan. Both Feely and Brown can boom kicks through the uprights from 45 yards or more with plenty of vertical space to work with. The competition will come down to who manages to tally the longest streak and hit consistently from all ranges.
“I think both guys have the range that we’re looking for in terms of being plus 50 field characters. And so that’s really not an issue. I think we may have to just go into a hot hand and let that play itself out. Fortunately, no, no, no one. There’s no book written on how you have to do that. We’ve got two good players here. We’ll just keep moving forward.”
With Feely having a year of experience on Brown, one would assume the extra year would set him a tad ahead. But Brown came into the program with an NFL-ready leg. His social media accounts highlight 70-yard makes and other impressive feats of kicking strength.
Feely, the son of longtime NFL kicker Jay Feely, is holding off the newcomer for now.
First of all, he’s talented,” Slocum said. “And he’s a smart, accountable guy. And he’s just really put in over a year’s worth of work of honing in on his craft. He’s fine-tuned some things, he has much more efficient movement, and he’s doing a good job.”
ASU was not particularly aggressive in kicking the football last season. Cristian Zendejas missed just a single PAT but only trotted out for 11 field goal opportunities. He was perfect inside 30 yards, but kicking from inside the 40-yard line saw him drop to a 50 percent clip. Zendejas did make his sole kick in the 40 to 49-yard range. Backup kicker Logan Tyler missed the team’s single attempt from 50-plus yards.
Last year, kicking range was an issue. And with budding punter Eddie Czaplicki consistently handing the senior-laden ASU defense good field position to work with, ASU was content to forfeit longshot opportunities for three points. Czaplicki’s talent is even more noticeable this year; he’s holding on field goal attempts and serving as the team’s kickoff man in addition to continuing his starting punter duties.
“I’m really excited where Eddie is punting the ball,” Slocum said. “He had a great day today.”
The returner receiving the kicks is usually redshirt sophomore D.J. Taylor. The Tampa, Fla. native is commanding most of the starting reps on kickoff and punt returner duties. His speed is well advertised, and his electric potential with the ball in his hands has been well-documented. Remember his 108-yard return to begin the 70-7 torching down south?
The decision-making process has been a constant teaching point for Taylor since last season. He muffed a punt before halftime against UCLA. The gaffe resulted in easy points in the form of a field goal for the Bruins and put ASU’s lead in a precarious position.
At various points during practice, Taylor earned praise from wide receivers coach Bobby Wade when waving off punts that hung in the air and mentally tempering his desire to zoom out of the end zone when eyeing kickoffs. However, there have also been learning moments. Taylor ran to field a kick along the sideline and stepped out of bounds inside the 10-yard line. He booted the ball away in frustration.
“On the kickoffs, he returns it when I tell him to,” Slocum said. “And so we, by design, will be aggressive with that or not aggressive with that based on a game situation.”
“In terms of the punt returns, what happened to UCLA was a decision that he’s improved on. And that’s something that he knows at this point now, having lived through that, that problem that I think he’s well aware of. You need to make that decision quickly and stay with it, don’t second guess yourself. And I feel good about where he’s at with those.”
Preparation in the film room and learning how to adjust in real-time to the trajectories of certain kicks is also aiding Slocum and Taylor in deciding when to unleash the playmaker’s abilities.
“It depends on a lot of things,” Slocum said. “Like their kicker, is he kicking the ball reasonably low, but he gets it deep? You know, how hard do their guys cover? You got a team who kicks off mostly touchbacks so the team never has to tackle. All of a sudden, they show up, and you got somebody who will bring it out on them; it’s a whole different deal.
“And so we calculated; I think there are times to be conservative with it, and there are times to be aggressive with it. I think we probably got a little bit confident in it with Bandon Aiyuk, and then DJ jumped in there right after that and had success. So I think you need to be smart about how we handle that moving forward.”
Slocum also detailed other options for returning duties. Daniyel Ngata is also a factor on kickoffs and has looked comfortable flanking the other half of the end zone with Taylor. Freshman wide receiver and local Saguaro product Javen Jacobs returned kicks in high school, so he’s been mixed in along with the speed of Elijhah Badger and Charles Hall. For punt returns, Slocum has also been impressed with Cam Johnson, in addition to Jacobs having a presence there as well.
Emory Jones is at the helm now. Offensive coordinator Glenn Thomas is now in the process of tailoring ASU’s attack to best amplify the redshirt junior’s strengths as a signal caller. Thomas was asked what that entails while also finding appropriate mismatches using a variety of personnel and schematic creativity.
Here is what Thomas said and a brief summary of what the aspect of the offense accomplishes.
A well-rounded receiving corps
“At the end of the day, our job is to put them in position to win a one-on-one, whether it be in zone coverage or man. And so I think we have a nice skill set. You know, we talked about our receiving corps a little bit like a basketball team. We have some big guys; we have some short guys, fast guys, agile guys. So we have some flexibility, some skill set that we can utilize those guys in different ways.”
The one-liner: The room isn’t as experienced from a snap standpoint, but Thomas likes the variety of playmakers at his disposal, and the indication is he will rotate his weapons to keep the defense in an active chess match.
Adding suggestions from Jones to the playbook
“Yeah, that’s been a nice conversation, a nice dynamic. Obviously, he has some, some background in a different scheme, a lot of success with the scheme. So I’ve picked his brain with some stuff that he’s liked and, probably more important that he feels comfortable with, right? We want to put plays in front of him that he feels comfortable with. So, you know, obviously, if you had some success with certain types of schemes, then you have a comfort level. So I’ve definitely tried to utilize that. We’ve had those conversations. And not only that but just even coaching points as far as technique that he might prefer than something that I’ve taught in years past. And we’ve kind of talked through that, you know, ‘Hey, I like this footwork versus this footwork or this drop or this read.’ And we’ve talked through that trying to just create a comfort level and what he feels more, you know, best with?”
The one-liner: This line of communication between play caller and quarterback did not exist last season, and it’s encouraging that Thomas recognizes the importance of making tweaks on his end to facilitate Jones’ success.
Jones’ preparation and work ethic
“He took fantastic notes. You know, we’d come in the next day, and I’d kind of quiz him on the day before. Install, kind of what he was liking, what he didn’t like, what reads, and if he had any questions. And he was on top of it. So you can tell he put a lot of work in the dark hours after he left the building, you know, to get ahead for the next day, so once camp truly started, he was ready to go, and that showed. I mean, even on the first day of camp, he was already getting some reps with the ones, and he was hitting the ground running even when camp started.”
The one-liner: This is exactly the material of starting quarterback ASU needed.
Elijhah Badger’s continued improvement
“I think Badge has taken a nice step in the right direction. There’s a lot of conversation, particularly in the spring, as far as it’s his turn to take it to the next step. So we’ve challenged him. Offensively, that’s been the challenge for us to him, to really step up and be the leader of that group. So I’ve been really impressed with him. He’s been pretty consistent throughout each day and has been more and more of a leader. And I think he’s got more of a comfort level.”
The one-liner: This recommendation glows more than the one Zak Hill gave last year about Badger’s development, and all signs point toward this year finally being the breakout.
Keeping running backs in the receiving game
“I think they’ve been really good. I think that’s something that we’re going to be very conscious of, to try to utilize that. Not only design a route just for those guys, but also from a check-down standpoint. I think, you know, quarterbacks are underutilizing the check-downs, late in the downs, and it’s just a chance to give those guys an easy completion. You know you keep your completion percentage up, you keep your rhythm of the offense up, and you have those chances to make make a play in space. So I think in a variety of ways, we’re going to try to get those guys the ball, and I think they have the skill set to do that. They can catch it, and obviously, they’re athletic enough to make plays and make people miss down the field.”
The one-liner: The pass-catching running back can be the quarterback’s best friend, even if their route duties don’t usually knock anyone’s socks off in the film room.
Join your fellow Sun Devil fans on our premium message board, the Devils’ Huddle, run by the longest-tenured Sun Devil sports beat writer, to discuss this article and other ASU football, basketball, and recruiting topics. Not a member yet? Sign up today here and get all the latest Sun Devil news!