Alex Garoutte took over the kicking duties for Arizona State last year with big shoes to fill, following in the footsteps of former Lou Groza Award winner Thomas Weber. Despite being an all-state kicker his senior year at Phoenix Brophy Prep, he only converted 15 of his 22 attempts in 2011, which included missing all three of his attempts in a devastating road loss at UCLA.
Garoutte though insists he has used last year's struggles as a motivation to get better and is eager to show Sun Devil he's a different kicker now.
"Coming back from something like that, the best thing you can do is just get better," said Garoutte Thursday. "I mean, it was unfortunate that it happened, all those things, but I know it made me better mentally. I knew I needed to become a better kicker, so I went out in the offseason and worked harder than ever before in my entire life.
"But stuff like that, it makes you learn from it and then you have to move on. It makes you a better person, a better kicker, a better everything. I wish it didn't happen, but it did, and I can only learn from it."
Despite his struggles, Garoutte managed to find his rhythm down the stretch as he connected on 6 of his last 7 field goals, including both his kicks against rival Arizona and his only attempt in last December's Las Vegas Bowl. It provided an encouraging ending to an otherwise forgetful campaign for the kicker, but one he's glad to have experienced and overcome.
"I like to say that I never lost my confidence because I've always had a lot of confidence in myself; I know what I can do," he said. "It just felt so good to come through for the team, honestly, near the end. It was the hardest thing, knowing that I let everyone down. I mean, there were a lot of guys who rallied behind me, but it wasn't always like that. Not at all. And I felt horrible.
"Just coming through at the end, that was the most gratifying part. It gave me more confidence and I was happy to finish the season that way."
Garoutte didn't spend much time getting down on himself once the season ended as he immediately began his new offseason workout routine in hopes of being better prepared for spring camp. Aside from working to regain his confidence, Garoutte, for the first time, looked for ways to improve his kicking technique, making subtle changes that have already had an effect.
"I changed a lot of my form up," he said. "Before, I didn't really use a counter-arm; I just kind of had my own way of kicking. But now, this way, it gives me more balance when I kick. I also just worked on some other little fundamentals that I never did before.
"I've never really had much kicking instruction, so I worked on becoming more consistent with everything. And with kicking, repetition is huge, so I went out there and was kicking 5-6 days a week. Just busting it out and trying to get better."
One of the bigger influences on Garoutte this spring, he admits, has been the new coaching staff at Arizona State. Coach Graham and Special Teams Coach Joe Lorig have introduced some new approaches to the kicking game that Garoutte insists have had positive effects on him in just a limited time.
"Coach Graham knows quite a bit about special teams, which really isn't all that common for head coaches," he commented. "We have really knowledgeable coaches when it comes to that. But he told me it's healthiest for your leg to get in about 35 kicks per day, so that's kind of what he has limited me to. And there's so many other things, without even having to kick the football that you can do to get better, like conditioning."
Besides offering conditioning tips and ways to improve technique, positive reinforcement and the encouragement he has received from the staff have gone a long way towards making Garoutte feel comfortable again in his kicking ways.
"The thing with Coach Graham and the staff is they are very supportive," he remarked. "They're all positive coaches and it's something that they talk about a lot. They're always motivating us, encouraging us.
“But he also likes to change things up and put us in uncomfortable situations because he really wants to see how we're going to do. He has us do game-winning field goals at the end of every practice where he has the whole team gather around and screaming in our face; he's just always changing it up just to keep us all on our toes."
Another interesting wrinkle Coach Graham has introduced to practice this spring has been the use of special teams’ players in contact drills that, in years past, the otherwise would not have participated in. For Garoutte, a former safety in high school, it's a welcomed change and just another way for him to enjoy himself while building up his own confidence.
"I think it's great," he said enthusiastically. "I feel it gives us more of a better reputation on the team. I mean, we're not the guys that just sit around do nothing all day. We get to go up against our teammates and do what they do, things that we've kind of gotten away from. And I love that stuff! I think it's fun. I love contact.
"Hopefully I don't have to do it in a game, but if it comes, bring it! I'm really glad the coaches are giving us that kind of opportunity; we get to be involved and feel more like a part of the team. It also helps us stay in shape."
Camaraderie and team chemistry have been some of the cornerstones that Coach Graham and his staff have been trying to establish this spring. Going along with that was word today that Arizona State is hoping to start up the old tradition of visiting Camp Tontozona in northern Arizona this summer, but first needing to secure some additional funding to improve the site.
The offseason retreat is something that Garoutte says he feels the team could benefit from and something he hopes to participate in.
"You know, I did something similar in high school," he recalled. "At football camp at Brophy we couldn't have cell phones and you were just with the team. It really helps bring everyone together. I think it's something that makes a team, it gives you something to fight for. You fight in the spring and summer and then get to come together and it makes everyone better."
With nearly five full weeks of practice behind them, the team now looks forward to the annual spring scrimmage this Saturday at Sun Devil Stadium. It's been a productive camp so far for Garoutte, who despite a bit of a cold start, appears to be finishing strong, something all Sun Devil fans should be relieved to see.
"I don't think I've kicked to my potential, but I think I've gotten a lot better throughout the spring," he said. "I've become more comfortable. We've been working with a brand new snapper, Easton Wahlstrom, and Mike Bercovici is holding now, and he's been doing an awesome job. It's all about us getting comfortable with each other, and really they've done awesome.
"I'm happy with the spring, but I can't wait to come out in the fall and do better. I'm never happy until it's perfect."