TEMPE, Ariz. -- "We have a lot of things to work on on special teams. That will be dealt with immediately, and that will be something I take a personal interest in. That has killed our team."
There was no misinterpreting the words from Arizona State head coach Todd Graham following the team's season-ending loss to Texas Tech in the Holiday Bowl last December.
Over the course of the 2013 season, the "special" in ASU's special teams had become borderline ironic. In Graham's own estimation, special teams failures were the difference that ASU was 10-4 instead of 11-1.
Arguably the biggest culprit in those special teams struggles was the punt game.
The Sun Devils ranked 119th among the 123 qualifying FBS teams in net punting with a 33.2 yards-per-punt average, their worst mark since 2007 (32.8). The team's gross total of 37.4 yards-per-punt was the program's worst since 2005 and second-lowest since 1991.
Following Josh Hubner's record-setting senior year in 2012, ASU signed Matt Haack (pronounced "hawk") in their 2013 recruiting class to take over the role as the team's punter. Things, however, did not go according to plan.
Walk-on Dom Vizzare beat out Haack to win the job in fall camp, but after a mishandle resulted in a Wisconsin touchdown in Week 2, Haack replaced him the next week in the game against Stanford. In that game, another punting team miscue on a snap gave a safety to Stanford, and began a rocky year for the group.
“It wasn’t my greatest year, football-wise," Haack admits. "I would have liked to have made more of an impact here.”
Such were the struggles of the unit that the team eventually used three punters in the role, with none topping a 39-yard average for the year. Alex Garoutte was converted from kicker and saw the bulk of the action throughout the rest of the year, but failed to distinguish himself in the role. Haack had just six kicks over the final eight games, with four coming the Holiday Bowl.
"The punters, we take responsibility for not performing as well as we should have in getting the hang time and distance," Haack said. "It’s a collective effort.”
While the flip-flopping at the position may have been a factor in the trio's inconsistencies, Haack refuses to use that as an excuse.
“I don’t look at it as getting into a rhythm," said Haack. "Each time any of us got a chance, we had to make the most of our opportunity.”
When Graham made those comments following the bowl, many expected that special teams coach Joe Lorig's time in Tempe was limited. It was, as Lorig soon left to take over the linebackers coach position at Utah State.
As a result, Graham brought in Keith Patterson last month to not only be ASU's defensive coordinator, but to oversee the defensive special teams. In his short time here, Patterson has already made a big impression on Haack with a renewed focus on fundamentals, something Patterson can teach from experience.
“Coach Patterson taught himself how to punt in college," Haack said. "He knows exactly what he’s talking about. Every snap we get, every punt we take, he critiques us. There is a lot more emphasis on it this year seeing as that last year was a struggle. They are helping a bunch.”
That instruction includes refining Haack's technique to be quicker and more fundamentally sound.
“It’s been getting the technique down and being more consistent," Haack said. "I’m trying to keep my leg swing straighter, as I have a tendency to swing it over to the right. I'm keeping my steps shorter and be a straight two-step punter.”
As a left-footed punter, Haack can present a unique set of challenges for an opposing punt returner, and his early work this spring has been noticeably impressive.
After a year in the team's strength program, Haack has been consistently blasting kicks deeper during the opening series of spring practices. Along with the improved technique, he's also shown a consistent spiral on most of his kicks.
“I feel a lot more comfortable and more confident than I was last year," said Haack. "It feels a lot better, and everything is coming along great.”
His performance has not been lost on his head coach.
"Haack has had a great four days punting," Graham said. "I think there's some things that we've worked on with the rhythm and timing, some things that are going to help, so I'm encouraged there as well."
The hot start is promising, but keeping the job will require the consistency no Sun Devil punter showed a year ago.
“I need to stay consistent, that’s the big thing," Haack said. "Keep hitting punts that are 40 yards with four-plus (seconds) of hang time, letting my coverage team get down there and make plays.”
The sting of last season's failures remain fresh in the minds of the Sun Devils, and with a rebuilding defense replacing nine starters, winning the field position battle will be crucial. ASU can ill afford to have a repeat of last season's special teams woes.
If Haack can continue to kick at his current level, that will be one less thing standing in the way of Arizona State repeating as Pac-12 South champions.