There is no question that Special Teams cost the Cardinals games in 2009 (and 2008 for that matter). Specifically in last year's rivalry game when Derrick Locke returned a kickoff for a touchdown, and Trent Guy fumbled a punt return that extended a Wildcat drive that led to the go-ahead and final score. But beyond that, there were several times when UofL would drive inside the 30 and elect to go for the 4th down conversion rather than taking the 3 points, points that would have inevitably kept the game close, preserved a lead, and made a major difference in the eventual outcome.
Finding and trusting a place kicker has to be a major point of emphasis for Charlie Strong. Chris Philpott is the guy coming into the season, he handled all the kickoff duties in 2009 and did a nice job. He did miss one extra point, but was 5-5 in field goals. If Philpott can be counted on from inside the 30 that is a huge improvement from last year.
One great sign for special teams is the commitment from the coaches. They all lend a hand in coaching the special teams and there is a precise attention to detail from what I could see in the limited amount of practice time I have seen. I would bet that UofL gets its first punt block since 2005.
Speaking of punting, Josh Bleser seemed to have some really nice potential. At the open practice he got off several high beauties and one absolute bomb. But he also had a couple of shanks off the side of his foot. If UofL can capture the greatness off of Bleser's foot that we saw on the practice field and give the opponent a long field Strong might have something here.
I think we'll see Doug Beaumont returning punts mostly in 2010. He is sure handed and stays behind the ball really well. Don't be surprised if junior college transfer Josh Bellamy plays a big role in both the kick-off and punt return game. Good kickoff returners are guys that see holes, are reliable catching the ball, and make good decisions, veterans are usually guys that fit that bill.
UK has things a little more into view in regards to special teams. First they are bringing in top freshman kicker Joe Mansour. Mansour is highly touted as a place-kicker and we'll certainly see how he performs on the road in the first pressure kick on September 4th. At punter, former UofL punter Wade Tydlacka's brother, Ryan Tydlacka continues his duties where he averaged 37.1 yards per punt last season.
On returns is it any surprise that the guys will likely be Randall Cobb and Derrick Locke? While Kentucky probably lacks a lot of offensive play makers they have used ingenuity in getting the ball in the hands of the standouts they do have. This continues with special teams. Derrick Locke is always dangerous returning kickoffs as UofL learned at Commonwealth last year, and Randall Cobb returning punts is also always a threat. Both guys had special teams touchdowns in 2009.
The Edge: Kentucky. This really isn't even up for discussion. Chris Philpott isn't any more proven than UK's new freshman kicker Mansour. UK returns an experienced punter and feature two returnmen who have proven to be lethal returning the football.
Part Four of a five-part breakdown of the Governor's Cup game. Stay tuned for Part Five.