Special Teams Not So Special

FAYETTEVILLE -- Special teams have been anything but special for Arkansas through five games.

In last Saturday's 45-30 loss at Florida, kick returner Cedric Washington fielded the opening kickoff in his own end zone and hesitated before bringing the ball out. He didn't make it far before running into teammate Marcus Whitmore and was swarmed by Florida defenders at the Arkansas 8.

Punter Jacob Skinner mishandled a snap a little later, but collected the ball and got a punt off in time. But his 31-yard kick gave the Gators favorable field position at their own 41.

Carlos Ousley, who left the team on Tuesday, also muffed a punt in the first quarter and recovered it after a five-yard loss. The miscue put the Razorbacks at their own 14 to start a drive.

None of those plays proved too costly and the Hogs, for the most part this season, continue to avoid giving up a big play on special teams. But special teams coach James Shibest said they're not producing many big plays, either.

A year ago, special teams play was instrumental in the Razorbacks' 9-4 season.

"It's been good and bad," Shibest said. "The thing we're doing well, something which scared me coming into the season, is that we haven't given up that big return or had one of our kicks blocked."

Jeremy Harrell, Kevin Woods and Jamaal Anderson have blocked kicks, with two coming in the season-opening 63-13 win against New Mexico State. Harrell blocked an extra point and Woods blocked a punt that was returned by Chris Houston for a touchdown against the Aggies.

Anderson was credited with a deflection when he got a hand on a punt against Louisiana-Monroe that only went 21 yards.

"We've played solid," Shibest said. " But we're not making any real big plays with our return game and that's what we need to make a good push the last four or five games.

"We've got to find ways to make some big plays on special teams."

Skinner has struggled with consistency in his drop and is next-to-last in punting in the Southeastern Conference (37 yards an attempt). He has had tendinitis flare up in his right (kicking) knee since two-a-days and isn't kicking during practice this week.

"He hadn't punted well, but I don't know if (the tendinitis) has had anything to do with it," Shibest said. "I'm sure it hadn't helped things, so we're resting him for the whole week because we need him to come on."

Thanks to gunners Darius Vinnett, John Johnson and Houston -- who started the first three games before an ankle injury sidelined him -- opponents are averaging just 3.3 yards per return while Skinner works out his issues.

"Our protection and coverage has been darn good," Shibest said. "We're still not giving our (gunners) much of a chance and Skinner, besides dropping the ball, had probably one of his better punting days last week."

The sophomore from Texarkana, Texas, hit a low 32.2 yards on five punts against Louisiana-Monroe and has been working on his drop ever since. While true freshman Jeremy Davis is working in his place this week, coaches say Skinner will be the punter next week at Auburn.

"The kid's got great talent," Shibest said. "He's just got to mentally, come out of it."

The Hogs could get a spark with starting tailback DeCori Birmingham moving back to punt returner this week.

Birmingham needs only one yard to surpass Ken Hatfield for the all-time Arkansas record in career return yards. The senior 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.

Birmingham played tailback, but didn't return any punts at Florida after missing practice time last week with a bruised back. He has eight punt returns for 48 yards and his 16-yarder against Texas is the longest this season.

"It's an old record, so it'll be an honor when I finally get a chance to go back there and break it," Birmingham said. "The main thing on punt return is trusting the guys on your team. I trust them and know that I'm not going to get hit and that makes a big difference."

Place-kicker Chris Balsiero has been dependable, making 23 of 24 extra points and 2 of 3 field goal attempts. His only miss was a 47-yarder against New Mexico State.

Another solid area is on the kickoff team where David Carlton is averaging more than 60 yards per kick. He had 10 touchbacks on 50 kicks last season and already has 10 on 30 kicks this season.

"It's not just me. We've got 11 guys out there that are great athletes," Carlton said. "They can really get down the field and make the play, so all I have to worry about is kicking it. That's why we've been solid."

Arkansas kick returners have been limited and are averaging 17.5 yards on just 13 returns. With Peyton Hillis out with a back injury, Cedric Washington is expected to be joined by either Birmingham or Dedrick Poole on kickoff return against Auburn.

"We've been solid, but we're just missing something," Birmingham said. "We're going to get that all straightened out against Auburn and hopefully we can get a big block or maybe even take (a return) to the end zone to get some momentum for us."

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