TEMPE, Ariz. -- There are a lot of ways to kick a football. Just ask Arizona State's Alex Garoutte.
Garoutte's first action with the Sun Devils was the difficult task of taking over for Lou Groza Award winner Thomas Weber in 2011. Over Garoutte's first season and a half, he connected on 21 of his 33 field goal attempts (63.6 percent), but his career to that point came to be defined by several key missed kicks.
Those struggles kicked off a series of events.
Walk-on Jon Mora took over the placekicking duties midway through last season, relegating Garoutte to kickoff and extra point duty. Mora and Garoutte battled this spring for this year's job, yet neither was able to distinguish themselves. That, in turn, led to head coach Todd Graham offering a late scholarship to Zane Gonzalez.
Gonzalez has made the most of his opportunity, as he is currently the nation's No. 2 scorer with 11.4 points-per-game and has made 11 consecutive field goals. He also has taken over Garoutte's former job on extra points.
Rather than feel bitter about a freshman taking his former job, Garoutte has chosen to focus on the production that has helped the team to their 5-2 start.
"Zane has kicked really well, especially for a freshman," said Garoutte. "I’m happy for him. It’s good for our team and it is helping us win.”
For a while, it seemed like Garoutte may end up as a scholarship kickoff specialist, a sub-optimal use of resources. Then, the team's punters—scholarship true freshman Matt Haack and walk-on junior Dom Vizzare—struggled. Badly.
It was then that Garoutte's career got a new lease on life.
The coaching staff approached the strong-legged Valley native about stepping in to help a punting game that ranked dead last in the FBS in net average.
"I don’t know how it all started, to be honest. It just progressed to that after everything else," Garoutte said of his move to punter. "I like helping the team out however I can. I was excited to get back there, because it’s just one more play to be on the field.”
Garoutte took over the punting duties for the win over USC, using a rugby style to produce the team's best results of the season to date. The unusual style helped to limit the chances that USC's dangerous Marqise Lee had in the return game.
“It’s a lot easier of a punt to do. It’s pretty easy to be consistent at it," said Garoutte of the rugby-style punts. "It really holds the other team into not getting a return because they are not catching the ball. I think that helps our team. When you’re punting it normal, sometimes you don’t get the hang time on it and they can return it. Then it becomes a 20-yard punt.”
Haack returned to the job for the Notre Dame and Colorado games, but Garoutte once again took over against Washington.
On the year, he has punted seven times for a 39.0-yard average, with two kicks pinned inside the 20. While not a lofty average, his kicks have been very effective in flipping the field and limiting opponents returns. The four Garoutte punts that have been returned have only amassed 24 yards, with 18 of those coming on one return by Lee.
Somewhat surprisingly. this recent stint as the punter marked the first time that Garoutte has booted the ball in a meaningful situation.
“I did punt in high school, but I never punted competitively," Garoutte said. "I always kind of messed around with punting. Specialists are known to have a bit more free time, so we always try to do a bit of everything. It is pretty new to me, and it’s a different style of punt rolling to the side.”
Garoutte has continued to take first-team reps this week and figures to once again punt this Thursday against Washington State. Despite his unorthodox rise to the position, Garoutte feels that his promotion is not an indictment of Haack or Vizzare, but rather the result of a "win now" mentality.
“They are both great punters and are working hard," said Garoutte. "They both have huge legs, and I think they are both going to have great futures. I don’t think the coaches want to get away from that traditional style. I don’t think that they have lost any confidence in them. Right now, we’re just trying to get it done to win a Pac-12 championship.”
Beyond his punting, his work on kickoffs has improved from a year ago—and not just with his leg.
His kickoff average is up nearly two yards to 63.0, and his touchback percentage is also up, from 38.8 percent in 2012 to 45.8 this year. That has helped ASU rise from 61st nationally in kickoffs last year to 36th heading into this week. Opponents are averaging just 19.9 yards per return this season, and Garoutte has been doing his part on coverage too, having made three special teams tackles.
Garoutte credits his more powerful leg on a combination of hard work and relaxing.
“Really, it was working out really hard this offseason with (strength and conditioning) Coach Gris (Shawn Griswold). I’ve put on about 20 pounds since last season. I’m at 210 now. I think that has helped my leg a lot. I’ve also been smarter about not overkicking as much so my leg is healthier for game day.”
While he's no longer scoring points for the team, Garoutte's perseverance and versatility have been key factors in preventing ASU's opponents from doing so.