The Red-White Game isn’t a show case for special team play. Seldom is there any live work and often kicking situations are skipped altogether in the spring finales around college football.
Case in point, starting time is listed as a noon kickoff. There may not even be a kickoff. The first offense may just trot out to the 25-yard line like most scrimmages. It won’t be sexy start, but what is exciting has been the improvement in special teams this spring for the Razorbacks. Actually, as an old timer who saw emphasis on the kicking game help the Razorbacks to the 1964 national title, that can be — to borrow a phrase from Arkansas coach Bret Bielema — borderline erotic in the personal view.
When you do see some field goal and extra point kicks Saturday in the Arkansas conclusion to spring drills, know that kickers Cole Hedlund, Adam McFain and Lane Saling have been run through the gauntlet as far as pressure situations over the previous 14 practices.
For sure, Bielema did not skip live kicking situations this spring. In fact, Bielema put the heat on his coaches and players to get the special teams fixed after kicking game errors contributed to losses for the Razorbacks last season.
Bielema promised to apply the pressure to his kickers during some pre-spring talk on pro day in March, noting there would be only two kickers invited to fall camp out of the three participating in spring drills.
And, Bielema said there would be some changes in protection for placements with new offensive line coach Kurt Anderson bringing NFL experience. Assistant coach Rory Segrest, who works with the kickers, also made some changes in technique Kickers were moved one yard further from the snap, kicking from eight yards instead of seven deep.
It’s combined to make for a striking improvement for Hedlund, the leader in the three-man battle. The redshirt sophomore now looks as advertised when he came out of Argyle, Texas as the nation’s top prospect. He was 9 of 15 last year, but just 1 of 5 from beyond 40 yards. He had four kicks blocked.
But Hedlund has been different this spring. I thought it appropriate that Hedlund had already showered and into his street clothes for a session with reporters after practice Thursday. He’s been neat and clean all spring on the field, too.
Hedlund has held the top spot all spring, missing only one field goal in team settings. He was just short on a 53-yarder last week, but made up for that by nailing a 55-yarder to end Tuesday’s practice. Teammates swarmed Hedlund after the long make.
“I corrected some flaws,” Hedlund said. “I’m getting the ball up quicker. I keep my chest up and it allows me to swing my leg higher. I get my hips through and there is more height. I think kicking from 8 back gives me more time, too.”
Segrest wanted to add the extra yard this spring.
“We kicked from eight yards at Philly,” he said, noting his NFL experience with the Eagles. “Some go with 7 yards. But I wanted to move them back. It makes you protect a little longer on the wings, but we thought getting more height from further back was more important.
“I know he’s getting the ball up quicker, but I think the protections were the issue. Still, when you get them blocked, it reflects poorly on the kicker.
“I think Cole is more confident with the protections and the extra yard gives him a better trajectory, too. Cole has just had a great spring. He’s just been more consistent and his velocity is better.”
Don’t under estimate the confidence Hedlund has gained from seeing what’s going on up front with Anderson’s O-line group. There were four blocks last season, most of them from the middle.
“Obviously, that makes my job easier,” Hedlund said. “It’s definitely better protection. The techniques up front are different and it’s worked.”
Anderson looked at tape of the protections as soon as he took the job this winter. Offensive line coaches always work with protections on placements, so he was ready to retool that group after seeing tape of last season and the blocked kicks.
“Yeah, I saw it,” he said. “I think what we tried to do first was make sure the players saw the emphasis we were going to put in for that area on a daily basis. You get what you emphasize. We had meetings and we worked on it every day.
“In the NFL, you have a special teams coach and a quality control coach in special teams, but the protection fell on me as the offensive line coach. I brought some things we did, but the first thing you do is get the right guys up there.”
Anderson said that was a matter of finding those who would take pride in kicking game protection.
“It’s not easy,” he said. “You are asking someone to absorb a direct shot from a 320-pounder coming full bore. What you are looking for is the absolute definition of uncommon.
“So you start looking for guys who take pride in that unit. You want guys who are proud of their university, their state and their team. Those are the guys you want on the field goal unit.
“It’s points. You have to have nine guys protecting who understand they are putting points on the scoreboard. There are certain guys who have a liking for that, putting points up. I’ve looked for those guys.”
Then, there are daily situations for protection. There have been changes in technique.
“We stagger the line and we step so that there is an interlock,” he said. “We have tried to eliminate some gaps and seams. I’ve asked for live work. The only way to get leaks stopped is to go live. I’ve seen some leaks, but we’ve worked to stop those.
“We’ve made a big deal of the protection unit this spring. Yes, we’ve changed some of the blocking technique, but I think most of what we’ve done has just had to do with our approach. You make it a big deal, they get it.”
Defensive coordinator Robb Smith noticed the changes right away. Smith coaches the block units in special teams since those are basically the defensive starters. It’s been tough to find any cracks in the protection.
“We have gone live and tried to block them,” Smith said. “We haven’t been able to get any penetration.
“To be honest, you go after them in practice to see if you can block them. But if you can’t, the defense is actually happy. We know that’s going to be the game winner for us. So we try to block them, then we celebrate the makes. We have been celebrating with the entire team with the success from the protection unit and the kickers.
“What I’ve seen, the protections are firm and solid. We have been cheering that. It helps team morale.”
New secondary coach Paul Rhoads has seen the same thing. It’s a critical improvement this spring.
“I’ve always worked with the block team and kickoff coverage,” Rhoads said. “Where the blocks generally come from is through the ‘A’ gap, right up the middle. That’s the shortest distance to the kicker. So if you block that up, you are generally good. It’s been a good spring there.”
Good maybe a better description than borderline erotic, but you get the idea. A good kicking game is pretty sexy.