August 4, 2008

Camp Preview: ST

Heading into Arizona State's summer camp a year ago there was a legitimate battle between two largely unknown and entirely unproven players to determine who would replace Jesse Ainsworth as the team's place kicker.

Just four months later, one of those two Sun Devils, freshman Thomas Weber, was given the Lou Groza Place Kicker Award, presented annually to the nation's top player at the position.

During that camp in 2007, many regular onlookers actually felt Weber was slightly outperformed by walk-on freshman Zach Richards. Certainly, nobody could have imagined that either of the players had even a remote chance to be among the top performers in the region much less the nation.

Nonetheless, Weber set a school record by converting his first 17 field goal attempts of the season, and finished the year 24-of-25. The only field goal of the season that Weber missed, came during the closing seconds of the first half against Oregon, when he was rushed onto the field for the attempt.

Otherwise, Weber was perfect for the season.

Weber was at the Davis in attendance at The Home Depot ESPNU College Awards show in Orlando along with finalists Austin Starr of Indiana University and Jose Martinez of UTEP when the award was presented by former recipient Judd Davis.

The first ASU kicker and the first freshman to win the award in its 16-year existence, Weber received 65 percent of the vote, which included all FBS (formerly Division I-A) coaches, and numerous sportswriters and media personalities from across the country, as well as conference officials, various NFL kickers and all previous Lou Groza Award finalists.

Weber, a 6-1, 205-pounder out of Downey, Calif., was one of three freshmen to be named to the Associated Press All-American first-team, and he was first-team all-Pac-10 as well as Special Teams Player of the Week in the conference three times.

In addition to his 24 made field goals, which was second most in school history, Weber converted 46 of 48 PAT attempts for a total of 118 points, tying him for the most in a season in school history with kicker Mike Barth, who did it in 2002.

In the second half of last season, Weber also took over the punting duties. He had 47 punts on the year for an average of 39.3 yards, finishing eighth in the Pac-10 conference. During the spring, Weber and Richards split the punting duties and they'll do so until coach Dennis Erickson declares a starter at some point prior to the opening game of the season.

The Sun Devils will be replacing their long snapper from last season, and the likely first-stringer at the position following spring ball is Thomas Ohmart, a 6-0 265 pound freshman from Scottsdale, Horizon High School.

Weber handles the kickoff duties and he's one of the top players in the Pac-10 in that area as well due to his powerful leg and high trajectory, which allows the team's kick coverage to get in better position to make plays up the field. Thirteen of Weber's kickoffs went for touchbacks, which ranked fourth in the league.

For much of last season, Kyle Williams led the league in punt return average before he slipped slightly late in the season, finishing with 9.7 yards per return, just 1.1 yards behind Cal's Desean Jackson. The 5-10, 185 pound junior is extremely fluid and laterally explosive, with great flexibility and burst. He gets up to top speed in a hurry and does a great job of making defenders miss on tackles in the open field.

On kickoff returns, the Sun Devils will have to replace Rudy Burgess, who averaged 23.1 yards on the season. It remains unclear which players are likely to fill that role in 2008, as a number of players were auditioning in spring ball. Williams, Chris McGaha and Kerry Taylor all have a chance to start, with McGaha perhaps an odds on favorite heading into camp.

What to watch in camp:

How will Weber perform with a new snapper and holder? Can he come close to matching the success of last season?

Who will win the starting punting job and can that player help push ASU into the top half of the Pac-10 in net punting?

Can Ohmert be consistent with his long snapping?

Does ASU have a kick returner who can do as well or near as well as Burgess?

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