It's far from a secret that the Arizona State Sun Devils football program had some issues with its special teams unit in 2021. Heading into 2022, those problems will hopefully have some answers.
For a program that has housed talents like NFL players Zane Gonzalez and Matt Haack within the last 10 years, it certainly was not something fans have felt the need to stress over until very recently. However, last year was a particularly rough season compared to some of the previous years.
Last season, the Sun Devils struggled across the board ranging from kicking to returning. Between kickers Cristian Zendejas and Logan Tyler, the two combined for only eight field goals on 13 attempts. The latter of the two went 0-2 on field-goal attempts. PATs felt a lot more secure with Zendejas than Tyler, as the former knocked 40 of his 41 attempts through the uprights. Tyler only made three of his five attempts.
Tyler has since departed the program after running out of eligibility, while Zendejas remains in the NCAA transfer portal awaiting a new opportunity. The current kicking competition will be between incoming freshman Carter Brown and redshirt freshman Jace Feely, son of former NFL kicker Jay Feely.
Punting wasn't much of an issue for Arizona State in 2021, with freshman Eddie Czaplicki averaging 43.4 yards per punt. The Sun Devils will be hoping that Czaplicki continues to build off a successful freshman season and become a difference-maker and field-flipper when called upon.
In the return game, Arizona State struggled mightily. Lead return man D.J. Taylor regressed significantly after an electric freshman season where he averaged 34.9 yards per kickoff return including a 100-yard return touchdown against Arizona. Taylor dropped to 21.9 yards per kickoff return in 2021, which consistently placed the Sun Devils behind where they would have started if Taylor had simply kneeled for a touchback. Whether it was a rash decision or a lapse in judgment, Taylor must improve in his decision-making on returns.
On top of his poor yards per kickoff return, Taylor also struggled with ball security in 2021. These are mistakes that need to be corrected if Taylor wants to remain the team's primary return man.
To Taylor's credit, he has shown some major upside as a returner for Arizona State. Between his freshman season on kickoff returns and his 13.6 yards per punt return in 2021, we know what he's capable of. If Taylor can make better commitments in the return game, there's little stopping him from being the lightning-in-a-bottle player he displayed when he was a freshman.
With so much change coming to the offensive side of the ball, the Sun Devils may need their special teams unit to become one of the pillars of strength for the team. Being able to kick long field goals when the offense stalls out will be critical to keeping up on the scoreboard, while Czaplicki can hopefully take that next step forward as a field-flipper when the offense can't move the ball. Add in Taylor's explosiveness and a more level-headed approach to returning, and you can see how pivotal it becomes for Arizona State to have a great special-teams unit in 2022.