UA Punter Drops The Ball

FAYETTEVILLE -- Jacob Skinner spent most of this week dropping a football on the turf, just to see how it bounces.

And the Arkansas sophomore punter thinks he's figured out the inconsistency in his form which has the Hogs next-to-last in the Southeastern Conference, averaging 34.4 yards per punt.

"My drop has been a problem because it tends to turn on me a little," Skinner said. "It's something that has just progressed as I've sped up things because when you rush things out and extend your arms quicker than you're used to, the ball kind of falls a little different."

It's been baffling for coaches to watch, although Skinner did improve his average to 37.3 yards per punt in seven attempts against Alabama.

"It's been his problem since he got here," said special teams coach James Shibest. "We've worked our tails off trying to get it right, but it's just when you get in the game, he goes back to the same old habit.

"He's got great technique and an unbelievable leg, it's just that one little thing which is about 50 percent of punting anyway."

Skinner hit a low in his progress when he averaged just 32.2 yards on five punts against Louisiana-Monroe.

Slowing down the process is the fact Skinner suffered tendonitis in his right (kicking) knee in the preseason, making the repetitions painful while he tried to figure out the flaw in his form.

"I almost kicked my leg out against Monroe trying to get everything straight, so it's starting to act up a little bit again," Skinner said. "But my form and my drop feels a lot better. When I first got here, I just worried about catching it and getting it off and now, it's almost like an over analysis.

"It was almost like I was thinking about it too much."

Fortunately, Arkansas' gunners have smothered returners while Skinner irons out the kink. Opponents are averaging just 3.2 yards per return.

They'll have their hands full on Saturday at 11 a.m. at Florida against Gators punt returner Vernell Brown, who is second in the league, averaging 11.6 yards per return.

"They have a great punt returner," said Arkansas coach Houston Nutt. "He's done a great job for them all year and we've got to do a good job with him."

Darius Vinnett and John Johnson will be the first two gunners on the field again Saturday. They were in there last week and didn't allow a return in seven punts against Alabama.

"Our gunners have done outstanding jobs and our whole coverage team really has," Shibest said. "It takes everybody working together, but as far as our gunners, they've done a great job. Our protection has had a couple of leaks, but we have had no major thing bad happen there.

"We've done a good job with it, but we must do the same this week because field position is so important in these games."

SECONDARY CONCERNS
Cornerback Chris Houston is doubtful for Saturday's game with a high ankle sprain. In his place, the Hogs anticipate using true freshmen Michael Grant and Matterral Richardson more often.

"Those high ankle sprains are unbelievable at how long they take to get better," Nutt said.

Houston agreed, adding that it's been frustrating because the recovery has been so slow and already caused him to miss last week's game against Alabama.

"I can do everything now, it's just tight still when I come up on my toes," Houston said. "I'm just trying to get the swelling down and it's gone down some, so now I'm just trying to get back to where I can run full speed on it."

The rest of the Hogs' secondary, including corner Michael Coe (ankle) and safety Vickiel Vaughn (ankle), should be healthy by Saturday.

"We're not 100 percent across the board, but we're going to be all right," said secondary coach Bobby Allen. "To play in this league, you've got to be two-deep back there because it's physical. You're going to get beat up a little bit.

"When one goes down, the next guy has to be ready to step up and I'm confident in our freshman Grant and Richardson to be able to go out and play the game for us."

ONE MORE YARD
Senior tailback DeCori Birmingham expects to play Saturday after treating his bruised back with ice and stretching this week. He sat out the second half of Wednesday's practice to help it heal, but was able to complete most of Thursday's workout.

"It's been slow," Birmingham said. "Hopefully, by game time, I'll be ready."

If Birmingham does play as expected and returns a kick or a punt, he'll become Arkansas' all-time leader in return yards. He needs just one yard to tie Ken Hatfield for the career return yardage record.

Birmingham has 1,603 (1,124 kick, 479 punt) total return yards while Hatfield, who now coaches at Rice, had 1,153 punt return yards and 451 kick return yards from 1962-64.

"It will be a real honor to break a hallowed record like that," Birmingham said. "That's a credit to the whole kickoff return and punt return teams since I've been here. I'm not back there by myself, There's 10 other guys back there helping me.

"My name will be by the record, but it'll be for everybody that's helped me get to it."

MILD CELEBRATION
If Florida safety Cory Bailey returns an interception for a touchdown Saturday, the senior said he'll celebrate differently than former teammate Keiwan Ratliff.

"I'm just going to give it to the ref and go to the sideline," Bailey said.

Ratliff picked off a Ryan Sorahan pass in the fourth quarter, returned it 44 yards for a touchdown and gave the Gators a 33-7 lead. But Ratliff fired the ball into the stands at Reynolds Razorback Stadium, drew a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and triggered Arkansas' fourth-quarter rally.

Bailey said he doesn't want to give the Razorbacks any inspiration this season.

"After Keiwan threw that ball in the stands it just seemed like they got upset at us or something," Bailey said. "I don't know. But they got mad and started playing ball and we just had to stand up and we ended up leaving that place with a win."

FOCUSING IN
Arkansas' practices have been closed all week so players could focus for their first road trip of the season. Nutt also closed practice before last season's first road game and the Hogs ended up beating Texas 38-28.

"We had a good week,' Nutt said. "Our guys had a great concentration level and that's what it's going to take."

Coaches pumped in the Florida fight song during the last three workouts, giving the Razorbacks a feel for what it might be like Saturday inside Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, known as The Swamp.

"When you take a team on the road, the communication skills have got to be just perfect," Nutt said. "You know you're going to one of the greatest environments that there is and it takes 70 guys all on the same page, both offensively and defensively."

STAFF WRITER ROBBIE NEISWANGER CONTRIBUTED TO THIS REPORT.

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