2013 Houston Cougars Season Preview – Special

Special Teams are called "special" for a reason. Being able to flip field position on an opponent as well as the psychological momentum a team can gain from a big Special Teams play cannot be understated and can have as much to do with winning (or losing) a game as offense or defense can.

Kicking and Punting

The Cougars Special Teams units have lost a lot over the past few years, such as Tyron Carrier (the NCAA career record holder for kickoffs returned for touchdown with 7 who's actually tied with Clemson's C.J. Spiller), Patrick Edwards (who had a career punt return average of 15 yards on 29 returns with 2 TD returns) and Matt Hogan (who finished his career as the NCAA record holder for consecutive extra points in a season with 78). One weapon that returns for his senior season however, is Richie Leone who probably starts the season adding the duties of field goal kicker to his normal punting role of the past three seasons. Special teams' coordinator Jamie Christian on the competition between Leone and true freshman Ty Cummings, "Its been going good. Both of them are doing a good job. Right now they're competing and it's still up in the air. I think right now Richie might have more of an edge just because he has a little more experience, even though he doesn't have experience at that position he has more experience being out on the field so we're just going to keep working it and make a decision here pretty soon." Does he think the burden of both kicking and punting will be too much of a load to handle? "Not at all, there's no doubt who our punter will be. We just want to see if he can carry the load and do both." Cummings (5'11, 180 out of Southlake Carroll) was ranked as the number one kicker in the nation by Scout with the following scouting report, "He has perhaps the strongest leg in the nation and hits a very consistent ball with great height off the ground." Chances are he'll be kicking off to start the season and possibly take over as the field goal kicker later in the season depending on how Leone is progressing in both of his roles. Whoever the kicker is he'll have huge shoes to fill in Hogan, who completed his Cougars career connecting on nearly 85 percent of his career field goal attempts (59 for 71), including many in the clutch (Tulsa 2009 anyone?).

Leone on his added responsibilities (via uhcougars.com), "I want to be a weapon every time I am on the field, set the defense up to defend the long field and make every kick that I get the opportunity to hit. If I can do that and create a long field we should be successful. It's going to be more fun, I won't have to sit on the sidelines as much. I will be more involved in the game. I am really looking forward to that challenge. I am taking it one day at a time. I have been working on it a lot this summers. I kicked in high school also; which a lot of people forget about. But I'm looking forward to it."

Head Coach Tony Levine on Leone (also during Media Day earlier this month), "I saw his mother yesterday at our family luncheon of almost 500 people saying goodbye to their young men for the next couple of weeks. It seems like during the recruiting process I personally recruited him (Levine was the special teams coordinator at the time). I flew into Atlanta and drove up to Roswell six times in December and January. That seems like it was just yesterday and now it's his senior year. I may be biased, but he is the best punter in the United States. When you talking about changing field position and helping our team and defense, he is a tremendous weapon for us. He is as excited about the new stadium as anybody because he won't be playing in it. He will be in Reliant playing indoors and not have to worry about a lot of wind his senior year. He's had a great career. He came in as a true freshman and did a great job right from the start and we will certainly be sad to see him leave." Other kickers and punters listed on the roster are sophomores Kyle Bullard (who saw no action) and Sam Martin, who played in three games as a backup punter and kickoff specialist.

Coverage Teams

While Leone was seventh in the nation last season in averaging over 45 yards per punt and he pinned opposing offenses inside their own 20 yard line on 18 of his 60 total punts, the Cougars punt coverage team could stand to gain improvement in the area as they allowed nearly 10 yards per return (9.76) which was 87th nationally. Leone was never particularly strong in kicking off as he only reached the endzone on 35 percent of his 71 total kickoffs (68th nationally) with the coverage team allowing nearly 22 yards per return (65th). With a lot of youngsters playing plus with more experience in the system, Christian thinks his coverage teams will be much improved this season, "I think in the second year in a new system with the way we're covering stuff, they've bought into it and I think we'll be a lot better. Last year was an adjustment; new coordinator, we were doing things differently – it took a year to adjust. They actually did pretty good being the first year but I think this year we'll be even better within the coverage teams."

Return Teams

This brings us to the worst part of the Special Teams last season – the return games. With the graduation of Edwards, the Cougars punt returns unit went from averaging 13 yards per punt in 2011 (13th) to just over 3 (113th). Wide receiver Damian Payne is the leading returning punt returner from last season with only 33 yards on 9 returns but does have a beautiful 76 yard return for a TD two seasons ago at Tulane, so he's shown he can be explosive. Receiver Larry McDuffey and defensive backs William Jackson and Alex Tillman have been seen rotating punt returns in practice as well. As far as kickoff returns were concerned, while there was only a four yard difference between 2011 (23 yards per return) to 2012 (19), that ‘big play' potential that Carrier brought each time he lined up underneath a kick was sorely lacking last season, where true freshman Ryan Jackson seemed to have an adventure almost each time he returned a kickoff as he averaged 21.7 yards on 14 total returns. Fellow running back Kenneth Farrow could be a factor in the kickoff return game this season, as could McDuffey. True freshmen receivers Donald Gage and Demarcus Ayers could also contribute mightily in the return games as well. As usual, Coaches Christian and Levine are keeping it close to the vest in announcing the depth chart (which could be released before this article is published).

Long snapping and holding

One of the reasons Hogan and Leone have been so great in their jobs the past few years has been the job of long snapper Brandon Hartson, whom also graduated and is currently on the Chicago Bears roster. In fact Hartson had been perfect for each snap over the past two seasons (290 to be exact), and proves the point that the only time in which the long snapper is noticed is when he messes up. Taking over those duties this season will be redshirt sophomore Nolan Frese (6'2, 230), which doesn't worry Christian at all, "He's been solid the entire camp, and nothing against Brandon, but I hadn't even noticed he was gone because Nolan's been doing such a solid job, so I'm pretty happy for him. Now we still have to see how he does in a game and hopefully he'll stay as sound as he's been so I'm looking forward to seeing him getting out there and doing his job." Backup QB Crawford Jones had been the holder on field goal and point after attempts for the past two seasons, and that job now may be up to backup and walk-on punter Dylan Seibert.

In underscoring the point on special teams, Kansas State head coach Bill Synder has said, "I've seen too many games won or lost with special teams. On offense you run a play for zero yards, and you get up and do it again. On defense you can give up five yards, and you get up and do it again. But with special teams play, you get one shot. You don't get second chances. You have one chance to do it, or one chance to defend it. It can change the complexity of the game so readily." It will take this kind of emphasis to lead the Cougars back to their "glory years" of special teams play when Levine was the special teams coordinator himself (08-11) before becoming head coach, highlighted by 16 blocked kicks, eight kickoff returns for touchdowns and six forced turnovers. Those groups also have tied or broken seven NCAA records and set 11 school marks. The eight kickoff returns for touchdowns are the second most by any FBS school over those four seasons.

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