Kicking competition ratchets up in camp

A year after former Lou Groza Award winner Thomas Weber experienced a rocky final season in 2010, Arizona State freshman kicker Alex Garoutte took over the job last year knowing exactly what the team expected of him.
"Success is making the important kicks," he said at the time. "A kicker can be good on 70 percent of his attempts, make all the right ones, and be a hero. Of course I want to make every single kick, but not many will remember my first quarter kicks."
Unfortunately for Garoutte and the rest of the Sun Devils, the kicker ultimately, and admittedly, failed at what he set his mind to: making the clutch kicks.
On September 17, 2011, ASU fell to Illinois 17-14 and Garoutte shanked a 32 yard field goal right before halftime. Nearly two months later on Nov. 5 as the Sun Devils were on the cusp of clinching the Pac-12 South title, Garoutte missed all three of his attempts at the Rose Bowl and ASU lost a heartbreaker to UCLA, 29-28.
The most memorable of the misses came as time expired when he clubbed his foot on the ground and didn't come close to converting a 46 yard attempt to win the game.
Of course in both of the losses there were other costly miscues by the Sun Devils, but not surprisingly, missed field goals always seem to get remembered more.
Now coming back for his second season, Garoutte is joined by two place kicking walk-ons looking to challenge the incumbent for the starting position.
Jon Mora and Dillon Jackson, both junior college transfers, don't have the same experience Garoutte boasts, but first-year coach Todd Graham has said the kicking spot is an open competition.
"Competition is great for everyone," Garoutte said. "It's great for the team and makes everyone better. Ultimately it makes the team better. I'm all for it, I'm glad they brought in some talented kickers."
Trying to move forward with his collegiate career, Garoutte isn't thinking back to the pitfalls of last season. Instead, he's trying to live with a shorter memory than before.
"You've just got to move on," he said. "After something bad happens, learn from it and move forward. After something good happens, remember it but don't get too high on yourself because you've always got more to do. Just keeping that focus and just knowing there is more to be done."
To improve in the offseason, Garoutte trained with Weber, who is currently in camp with the Cincinnati Bengals, along with Baltimore Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff. He said he never went two days in a row without kicking all the while participating in the summer conditioning workouts as well.
"I want to do well, I want to succeed more than anybody I feel like," he said. "So yeah, it wasn't fun but I didn't really rely on anybody. I knew I had to get better. I talked to Weber once because he's had some ups and downs and I asked him, 'What did you do? How did you handle it?'"
In cooperation with his two kicking mentors, Garoutte made some adjustments to his approach. He has been trying to keep his head down more and staying straight through the ball to avoid pushing it one way or the other.
Through five practices, he's happy with the results thus far.
"I'm doing well for the most part," he said. "There are some miss hits here and there. I need to clean that up but so far I'm really happy with how I'm doing, kickoffs especially and field goals I've been hitting them all pretty solid."
As for Garoutte's walk-on competition for the place kicking responsibilities, both Jackson and Mora come with fairly solid credentials.
Jackson, who didn't play a snap of football until joining the team at Scottsdale Community College with current Sun Devil punter Josh Hubner, is someone still relatively new to kicking and improving constantly. Coaches at ASU told him because he could punt, kick and do kickoffs, the team would be able to utilize him in multiple roles. In a recent practice he was consistently putting kickoffs well into the end zone.
"This is definitely a big step but I feel like I've improved a lot with my strength and agility and I feel like that makes me more flexible when I kick," Jackson said. "I feel like I've definitely gotten better. The first couple days were tough just because I had to get the nervous bug out of me. But I've really started to settle in and getting confident in what I'm doing."
On the other side of the coin, Mora is a kicker not unfamiliar with Division I football. Coming out of high school at Mountain Pointe, he walked-on at Arizona and stayed with the Wildcats for the duration of the 2010 season.
"I've improved a lot, I learned a lot that year from that experience at the Division I level," he said. "When I went to a junior college after, I already had the Division I mentality so it kind of gave me an edge."
In his only season with Pima Community College, Mora connected on nine field goals with a long of 54. For his efforts, Mora said he received several scholarship offers including from teams in the Western Athletic Conference but opted to return to the Valley to stay close to home.
He was also lured to ASU by the coaching staff promising him an opportunity at earning the kicking job.
"That's why I came here, I have a chance to compete and that's what I love," he said. "Just give me a chance and I'll prove myself. I have a wide open opportunity to make every kick and it should be good. We have two other great kickers so it should be a great competition."
Special on Special Teams
Graham said in order to have the best chance to compete for a league title his team will have to be very good in takeaways and in not turning the ball over, and on special teams. To that end, he's going to play some of his best players on special teams, including senior running back Cameron Marshall.
"Cam will be on punt block, Cam will be on kickoff cover," Graham said. "Yeah I know, he's one of the best running backs in the country. But that's what makes him unique. He might line up on third down and rush the passer."
4-3 install
For the first time Tuesday, ASU began putting in its 4-3 defensive alignment, which features four down linemen with the devil backer position moving from a middle linebacker set up to more of a traditional defensive end role.
Junior college transfer Mike Pennel earned first-team reps at tackle and junior Davon Coleman was with the first group at end.
"At the end of the day I love to pressure out of the 3-4 stuff and then obviously today we slid down and played some four man," Graham said. "That's just kind of our progression where we did the opposite in the spring."
ASU showed its 30 front on long third downs but played with four down linemen on shorter third downs. Blitzes came from every gap and multiple combinations of positions.
"I think it makes us very versatile to do both and I'll tell you why: there's things about the 3-4 component I like against certain teams in our league, and there's such diversity in the schematics," Graham said. "You've got power football, power run, pro style, spread everywhere and you've just got to have that in your scheme. We don't change personnel."
Graham said freshman defensive lineman Jaxon Hood will definitely not redshirt. Hood has mostly played second-team end in ASU's three down alignment.
Tuesday's practice included 100 percent ball security for the second day in a row but was "just okay and good in spurts" Graham said, with poor focus in the 7-on-7 period.
It hasn't taken long for Junior Onyeali to make a positive impression coming off suspension. The junior has had several sacks in recent days and Graham said it's difficult to imagine Onyeali isn't one of the team's best 11 defensive players.