Arkansas has had its share of struggles on both offense and defense so far in the 2005 football season. Few can argue that. But the problems on both sides of the ball don't necessarily mean the entire team has been a disappointment.
One group, as a whole, has lived up to and even surpassed expectations so far this year.
Can we get a shout out for the special teams?
While the Razorbacks' defense was busy allowing 70 points to top-ranked USC back on Sept. 17 in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, the Arkansas special teams was quietly getting the job done -- for the most part -- with long kickoff returns and punts which stayed far away from Heisman candidate Reggie Bush's reach.
Then when the Hogs couldn't get the ball rolling last week on offense in a 24-13 loss at Alabama, it was the special teams who -- for the most part -- was the biggest reason the contest was close in the first place, thanks to near-perfect coverage and a blocked punt late in the game.
"When it was 17-10 (against Alabama) and (Kyle Dickerson) blocked that punt, you could just see, it's just amazing what big plays can do in a game," said Arkansas special teams coach James Shibest. "And even though we didn't have a good game against USC, even the long return by Felix Jones, it's those plays that feel like it gives the team momentum. And we've got to try to continue that.
"I think it's important when you still have a young team, when you can make plays in that aspect of the game, boy it makes a difference. It gives confidence to the guys."
New Season, New Jacob
Numbers can certainly be deceiving.
Take Jacob Skinner, for instance.
Through four games, Skinner ranks just 56th in the nation with a 40.0 yards per kick average.
Not bad digits. Not great, either.
Skinner's punting average doesn't tell half the story, though.
A year ago, Skinner struggled with his consistency before being replaced as the starter by then true freshman Jeremy Davis.
Now a year later, Skinner is perhaps one of the most valuable players on the Razorbacks' roster.
"Last year, being benched and everything was a real downer and hard time for me," said Skinner. "And after that happened, I just sat down and said I don't want that to happen again and just came out with a new mindset."
There's much more to Skinner's numbers than just 40.0 per kick. There's fair catches (Skinner has forced six in 21 punts), kicks inside the 20-yard line (he's had seven of those) and kicks into the end zone, or touchbacks (just one of those).
These are the numbers which have made Skinner so valuable.
"I think he (Jacob) is a little older, but just to see him overcome his tough times from last year is good," said Shibest. "He's corrected his drop. Not completely corrected. He just had a bad habit coming out of high school which is hard to break, but he's gotten better and has been able to focus better in pressure situations in games."
Especially last week.
With Arkansas unable to get anything going offensively, Skinner was the team's best weapon, twice pinning Alabama inside its own 2 in the first half.
The junior who hails from Texarkana, Texas wasn't alone in making the Tide start deep in their own territory, though. On both punts, gunner Chris Houston was able to race past Alabama defenders and make his way to the ball before it crossed the goal line.
"Really special teams can set the tone," Houston said. "When you can get down there and down the ball inside the 20, it gives the defense more momentum and they're more fired up and they feed off of that. So we take that serious every day because coach (Shibest) stresses to us how important it is every day.
"It takes really, heart, and wanting to be the first person down there to the ball. Just wanting to get down there and catch the ball. That's how I take it. I always want to be the guy down there to make the big hit or down the ball at the 1, because that really sets the momentum for the defense."
More Than Just Kicks
Special teams is more than punts and field goals. Make no mistake, two of Arkansas' biggest strengths on special teams have been just that, with Skinner and placekicker Chris Balseiro so far having stellar seasons.
But there's more to the unit than high hang times and darts through the uprights which make this group 'special.'
There's also Felix Jones on the kickoff return team. A true freshman, Jones is second in the Southeastern Conference and 12th in the country in kickoff return average at 32.1 yards per return. And you can't forget the punt coverage unit, which has allowed just four returns for a 7.2 yard average.
While performing poorly early in the season, even the kickoff coverage team is coming around, now allowing just 22.6 yards per return after giving up two returns for more than 40 yards against USC.
"If we get our kickoff coverage better, which made some improvements against Alabama, we feel, boy, (special teams) has been a real key part of the season for us," said Shibest. "We've just got to put everything together with that. Jacob has been leading the way, Balseiro and all those guys have been playing well and it makes you look better.
"We've always felt our coverage teams and the things we do have been good. It's just, the specialist guys have got to be the ones who make us look batter. When Chris is kicking the ball well, and Jacob, it makes all the difference the world for us."
Work Paying Off
Arkansas' special teams might well be the best asset this team has right now. That doesn't necessarily mean things can't be better.
"You know, there's been a few kicks here or there, especially in the last game at Alabama in the wind, that could have been better," said Skinner. "But with this type of position as a part of the special teams, you can never be too satisfied. You can always be more consistent, get more hang time on the ball and put it farther.
"We've been perfect in protection, been perfect in coverage. Just as far as myself, maybe getting more consistent. They don't all go 50 yards and they don't all go inside the 10, so until that happens there's always room for improvement."
Skinner is probably the coaches' least concern on special teams right now. Other areas are still needing more work, particularly the punt return team.
Even more particularly, the man handling the punt returns.
"The punt return team has been awesome. They've had lanes to run. Just the guy fielding the ball, it's making sure they field the ball," said Shibest. "And (Peyton) Hillis just gives us the most consistent guy back there. Mike Coe was amazing, but his ball security was a little concern. And Felix Jones is another guy, but he's just not ready. So we've got guys back there, we've just got to take care of the ball. Peyton might not be able to break away back there, but we feel like he'll be able to get some positive yards for us."
So for now, Hillis is the man taking punts.
In his first day on the job last Saturday at Alabama, he fared well.
No glaring mistakes, but no eye-popping gamebreakers, either.
"It was good," Hillis said. "I had a couple of mess-ups on a couple of them that I could have returned back, but that's going to happen the first game out there."
Hillis knows his primary job, though, is to just hold onto the ball, something Coe had problems with in the team's 28-24 loss against Vanderbilt.
"Right now we're having trouble (on punts) for guys catching the ball and I'm the guy back there right now trying to catch the ball," said Hillis. "They know I can get some yards on the return, but the first thing, for sure, is catching the ball."
For a team struggling mightily, at times, on both sides of the ball, having just one glaring concern in special teams isn't bad.
And while Arkansas continues to work though its problems on offense and defense, just remember.
Sometimes, things are not always as bad as they seem.
"We take a lot of pride in special teams," Hillis said. "Our coaches put a lot of focus into that part of the game. Everyday we work on it. Everyday we have special teams meetings before practice.
"So we work on it a lot."
So far, the work has apparently paid off.
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