State of the Hogs: Un-special Teams

Nothing has been special for the Arkansas special teams this season. Head coach Bret Bielema discussed many aspects of the kicking game on Monday.

Special teams have not been so special this season at Arkansas. From missing a field goal that could have ended an SEC losing streak, to blocked extra points, to a high snap, to mishandled punts, to big returns on punts, it's been a series of problems for coach Bret Bielema's team.

It's to the point that Bielema was asked specifically who handles what area of special teams since he doesn't list a special teams coordinator. Rory Segrest, the defensive line coach, is listed as the specialist coach, meaning he handles punters and kickers.

Bielema went over some of the duties at his Monday media briefing, but said “ultimately” he's in charge of the team and he takes responsibility. He did indicate that he is in charge of fielding punts. That job is currently open, Bielema said.

D. J. Dean held that job this season until he muffed a punt in the second half of the 45-17 victory over Alabama-Birmingham. Demetrius Wilson, his backup, then muffed a punt that went out of the end zone for a touchback.

“I've never tried to field a punt,” Bielema said, who then asked a reporter, jokingly, if he had ever tried, with the summation that it's not easy. “I run punt return and punt block teams. Coach Segrest runs kickoff and kickoff return. Coach (Joel) Thomas runs punt. Ultimately, I'm the coach.

“I told our team on Sunday that anyone has an opportunity (for punt return) this week. On Dean, we kept working with him to get his confidence up, but it got big on him Saturday on that one play.

“I wasn't trying to get on him too hard, but when I asked him to tell me what happened, he kept saying the same phrase. I told him to go take a breath and come back a little later. When he did, he said the same thing so we went with Demetrius.”

Toby Baker took over for Sam Irwin-Hill as the punter on Saturday, but that lasted just one time.

“We wanted to get Toby in there, but then he hit it with 3.1-second hang time,” Bielema said.

That one was returned to the 10-yard line. Later, a kickoff was returned 100 yards for a touchdown. In each case, Bielema said there were newcomers taking over for starters that allowed for the big returns.

“For instance, we took AJ Derby off of the shield and we were down to our third player at left shield,” Bielema said. “We had three freshmen out there (on kickoff return). At my previous job, when we were winning some games by 40, you want to get some guys in there and it causes some issues.”

That is exactly what happened against UAB. Bielema said it points to the fragile depth situation of the 2014 Razorbacks, something that will improve.

“If you pull off first and second teamers as you get a lead, you are down to your threes,” he said. “It's a hard thing to do.”

Adam McFain connected on a 49-yard field goal, just the team's third this season. Bielema was hopeful McFain would get some more chances against UAB.

“One was lost when we went with the pass for (Sebastian) Tretola,” Bielema said. “Obviously, we had been having issues with PATs and field goals. McFain gives us something there. He hit a 54 or 55 yarder in practice and our team went crazy. He smoked that one (Saturday) right down the pipe. He gets a lot of height.”

Bielema was asked if McFain felt pressure?

“I don't think he does feel pressure,” Bielema said. “Everytime I went up to him on the sideline, I don't think he does feel anything.”

Bielema understands that special teams have not been up to the proper level. And, he should know that perhaps he wouldn't be talking about trying to break a 16-game SEC losing streak with proper special teams. As they say, about the time one leak gets fixed, another one springs forth.

McFain and Irwin-Hill appear to be his kickers for the current time. Alan D'Appollonio has a touchdown reception to make up for the high snap against Alabama. Now it's on to Starkville to find out who will field punts for the time being.

The Hogs have scored three touchdowns on special teams. Korliss Marshall, now suspended, returned a kickoff for a TD. Irwin-Hill rolled the distance on a fake punt. Then, Sebastian Tretola passed to D'Appollonio in the field goal situation last week. So there's been a bit of good with the bad. It's just too easy to remember so much bad that has made the Hogs un-special in special teams at times this season.

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