When thinking of the Coogs special teams units over the past few seasons, the name that most prominently comes up would probably have to be that of punter Richie Leone (an undrafted free agent signee of the Baltimore Ravens). Of his 219 career punts over the past four seasons along Cullen Boulevard, 79 of them pinned opponents inside their own 20-yard line. He also had 54 punts of 50 yards or more while averaging 43.1 yards per punt during his four year career at UH.
"Losing a guy like Leone is going to be tough, no question about it," said Christian who sat down for an interview with Coogfans.com recently. "He's been here for four years and made it an easier transition for me personally as he was here before I was. He was recruited personally by (head) Coach (Tony) Levine. He's going to be difficult to replace no doubt, but I feel like we've got a few guys here that have the ability to step up. Seibert is the man right now but someone definitely has to step up and do the same things Richie has done for us."
The Siebert Christian was referring to would be junior Dylan Seibert (6-foot-3, 220 pounds), last season's starting holder, who transferred from Oklahoma. While he has no stats punting wise in his two seasons at OU and last season as the backup to Leone, famed kicking coach Chris Sailer ranked Seibert as one of this top prospects coming out of Tulsa's Booker T Washington in 2011, calling him "big, strong and athletic." The other punters listed on the roster are Sam Martin (6'1, 185, Jr.) and Logan Piper (6'1, 200, Jr.). The key phrase concerning Christian's comments were "right now" when discussing Seibert's hold on the starting punting spot as his performance during spring ball was tedious at best. Not to mention the fact that Levine breeds competition at every position, which brings us to kicker.
Last season Leone started the season as the starting field goal and place kicker but gave way to Kyle Bullard (5'11, 170, Jr.) towards the end of the season after struggling with his accuracy on longer attempts as he missed on four of five attempts from beyond 40 yards. Bullard was put to the test right away as his first collegiate attempt was a 46-yarder, which he converted at Louisville. For the season Bullard connected on all six of his field goal attempts and 20 extra points, earning him a scholarship over the off-season. One would think Bullard has the kicker spot solidified going into fall camp, but that isn't necessarily the case as he'll have to hold off Ty Cummings (5'10, 164, So.). The 2012 Southlake Carroll graduate was Scout.com's number one rated kicker for the 2013 recruiting class. Cummings kicked off five times early during his true freshman season, kicking one ball out of bounds while adding a touchback. He attempted zero field goals for the season.
That word "competition" again comes up as Christian describes the kicking situation heading into the summer, "both are very capable kickers and competition will really help both of them this season. Both have different attributes. Kyle came in last year and really stepped up and took the stress off Richie. He has a chance to do a lot this year while Ty has a lot of talent and we look for him to really contribute some way in the kicking game this season."
In order to have a successful punting and kicking game the long snapper and holder must excel as much as the actual punter and kickers do. In fact the only time you hear about the long snapper and holder is when they've failed, this being the reason why you probably haven't heard Nolan Frese (6'2, 230) and Seibert's names mentioned at all last season as neither bobbled a snap in their respective jobs. Frese took over the long snapping duties last season after backing up long time starter Brandon Hartson in 2012 and redshirting in 2011. Sailer ranked him the number-one long snapper in Texas (Keller out of Roanoke, Tx) and seventh nationally for the 2010 recruiting class.
No matter who does the punting or kicking this season, the coverage units will hopefully remain solid as the Coogs allowed opponents to return only 18 punts for 73 yards, for a 4.06 yard average which was 18th nationally and second in the American Athletic Conference to only Louisville. Of course it helps to have a solid punter like Leone and his often booming punts, which allows more time for his coverage units to get downfield in order to make a quick tackle. Due to a few long returns, the kickoff coverage unit allowed opponents to return 42 kickoffs for 902 yards, good for 21.50 yards per return (70th nationally).
"If you don't take pride on special teams, you don't get to be a part of our unit. It's as simple as that."
Is the prevailing philosophy for both Levine and Christian concerning using starters on the various special teams units, "We try to get as much out of our starters in order to make an impact on special teams but it's more than that. You have to take pride in our special teams and for the most part we try to play the best players in every aspect of special teams. To us it's as big a part of this team as offense or defense."
Four student-athletes Christian mentioned when asking about the impact players on the various special teams units were safeties Earl Foster (6'1, 192, Jr.) and Trevon Stewart (5'9, 192, Jr.), running back Luke Stice (6'0, 226, Jr.) along with defensive lineman B.J. Singleton (6'4, 285, So.) who blocked three kicks last season. When asked about UH's knack for blocked kicks over the years and whether it's scheme or talent Christian mentions both, "The scheme is about putting the talent in the right spot at the right time to be successful. You also have to have a knack for it and it helps scheme wise with Coach Levine being a special teams guy himself, he lets me do things other head coaches may not let their special teams coordinators do."
The Cougars return game last season was like fire and ice, with the "fire" being the kickoff return game and the "ice" being the punt return game. Led by true freshman Demarcus Ayers (5'10, 173), the Coogs were fifth nationally in kickoff returns averaging 25.26 yards per return last season. Ayers led The American and was 12th nationally with an average of 27.6 yards per kick return. The Lancaster, Texas, native finished the year with 37 returns for a UH freshman-record 1,021 yards including a 95-yard touchdown return versus BYU. Ayers ability to cut (or "stop on a dime"), and his acceleration from a stand still point also make him an excellent candidate for the punt return job as well, which Christian mentioned giving him an opportunity at come Fall camp. The starting punt returner coming out of Spring ball is Greg Ward Jr. (5'10, 175, So.), who had two returns late in the season for six yards, as Coach Levine wants to get the ball in his hands as much as possible, even switching him from quarterback to wide receiver on a full-time basis.
Anything would be better than last season's anemic 3.65 yards per return (on 20 returns) placing them 115th nationally out of 125 teams. Damian Payne (6'0, 210, Sr.) returned one punt for 31 yards versus Rice but still finished the season averaging only 4.3 yards per return on 15 total returns. Most of Payne's problems last season seemed to be from simply knowing whether to even return a punt or not, as too many times last season he would try to return a punt in traffic resulting in a tackle for negligible gain or even fumbling the punt. He seemed out of his element trying to return punts as he failed to realize a fair catch at least gives the offense an opportunity to move the ball, which is much better than a turnover in your own territory. With natural athletes such as Ward and Ayers returning punts hopefully the unit gets back to the days of "yesteryear" (2010 and 2011) when Patrick Edwards returned punts for averages of at least 14 yards per return and was a legitimate threat to score each time he fielded one. Christian also mentioned how the blocking must improve this season in order to spring a successful return game.
Aside from the punt return game (which looks to gain a huge boost from either Ward or Ayers), the Cougars various special teams unit looks to continue upon their success of the past few seasons under their third year coordinator in all aspects including that of kicking, punting, coverage teams and block kick teams as special teams success plays a special role for the University of Houston's football program.