In recent years, the Hoosiers haven't gotten much of a kick out of its kicking game.
From placekicking to punting to the return game, special teams hasn't been a specialty for the IU football program for some time. Instead, more often than not it's proven to be a liability to recent Hoosier coaches Cam Cameron, Gerry DiNardo and Terry Hoeppner in their efforts to turn around IU's fortunes.
Will that change in 2006? Time will tell, but the spring season suggests there's still plenty of work to be done.
The Hoosiers' most glaring weakness a season ago was with their placekicking, as the team attempted only six field goals in 11 games, converting three. IU didn't attempt a single field goal outside of 39 yards, instead opting to go on fourth downs when most teams would send in its field goal unit. While Indiana didn't have any down-to-the-wire contests where the game was decided by a late field goal, it was obvious that if it was put in that sort of situation, there wasn't a great deal of confidence that the job would get done.
Indications are there will be a new person handling the placekicking duties this season. In the spring, last year's placekicker, Joe Kleinsmith, was moved to cornerback, leaving the job open to the likes of Austin Starr, Kevin Trulock and Michael Hines. All three had opportunities to show what they could do throughout the spring, often rotating at the close of drives during 11-on-11 work to attempt field goals.
While it's a battle that's far from over, indications from the spring were that Trulock was the best of the bunch. While he doesn't have the leg strength that Starr does, Trulock was certainly the most consistent from 40 yards and in, and even that would be a huge step in the right direction for the special teams.
The punting duties, meanwhile, figure to once again be handled by Tyson Beattie. Beattie handled all of the punting duties this spring, and he'll be looking to improve on last year's 41.7 yards/punt average.
The return game is another area the staff wants to shore up significantly. A season ago IU's punt coverage team gave up two scores while allowing foes to average 13.4 yards/return, and the kickoff return gave up 22.7 yards/return, including a game-opening touchdown in the loss at Michigan State.
On the kickoff team, one of the hopes is to continue to utilize the big leg of Starr and presumably force more touchbacks than a year ago. Starr – who could also wind up handling the team's field goal attempts outside of 40 yards – had 10 touchbacks in 40 kickoffs a year ago, and if he can consistently put the ball into the end zone that would provide a huge boost to the special teams units.
One area of relative strength for the team in recent years has been its ability to come up with some big plays out of the return game, most notably from Lance Bennett. The Brooklyn, N.Y., native once again appears to be the team's No. 1 punt returner, and he'll likely share kickoff return duties with Marcus Thigpen. A season ago Bennett averaged 22.7 yards per kickoff return and 6.6 on punt returns, and he had a pair of returns for touchdowns during the 2004 season. He's currently being backed up on punt returns by redshirt freshman wide receiver Nick Polk.
Another big part of IU's special teams was absent this spring, as Tim Bugg recovers from off-season surgery. Bugg is the team's long snapper, and his absence certainly played some sort of role in a few of the miscues in the kicking game this spring. His return will be important to the improvement in both the placekicking and punting games.
Biggest Surprise - During the Hoosiers' first scrimmage of the spring, it was Joe Kleinsmith who was not only bringing pressure off the edge on field goals, but the converted kicker actually blocked a pair of field goal attempts by Hoosier kickers. Like one-time kicker turned safety Troy Grosfield, shedding the placekicker label will take some time for Kleinsmith, but he is a very good athlete who appears to be capable of helping the defense and special teams units this season. In addition to Kleinsmith, corner Tracy Porter was another player on special teams who was able to get to the kicker off the edge to block a kick or two this spring.
Biggest Disappointment – During the handful of opportunities that IU's return men did have a chance to return kickoffs, the coverage teams still appeared to be susceptible to the big play. During one scrimmage Indiana's kickoff coverage team gave up back-to-back returns for scores by Bennett and then Thigpen, and Indiana can't afford to give away big plays on special teams like that again this season. A year ago Indiana gave up three touchdowns on returns while producing zero points of its own, and that's an area that needs to be better.
Spring Position MVP - Trulock did show some consistency on kicks inside of 40 yards, which is dramatic improvement from where the team was a season ago. While many fans might have been left scratching their heads when Indiana opted to go for fourth downs a year ago inside of kicking a 45-yard field goal, for those who witnessed many of the field goal attempts in practice, it was easy to see why IU opted to go that route. Many kicks a year ago in practice weren't just missed, they were missed badly and really left the IU staff without many options.
Post-Spring Analysis - Special Teams
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