(Last in a series of interviews with the assistant football coaches about the results of spring training.)
Houston Nutt's staff didn't know Josh Shene, Dexter McCluster or Mike Wallace from Bo Diddley when spring training started in terms of what they could provide on special teams.
That has been the challenge of Special Teams Coordinator James Shibest – identifying and evaluating the available talent and trying to piece it together into the various return, coverage and kicking units.
"I think we have enough team speed and special teams bodies to be alright," said Shibest. "This spring, we have just been trying to identify who the best special teams candidates are and go from there. We are trying to find the guys who have a special teams mentality and want-to. Who will stick there hats in there and mix it up. Who is unselfish about wanting to help the team any way they can. Those kinds of things."
Shibest believes he has found several players who fit the mold.
"When we start in the fall, we are going to have a good idea who can do the job," he continued. "We have not worked on much scheme this spring. We have worked more on individual skill sets and we will piece it all together in August and install the bulk of our schemes then.
"The main focus in spring has been us, as coaches, getting a feel for our personnel."
Shibest said all the defensive backs have been "gung-ho" about special teams and he also pointed to some of the wideouts as having "that mentality."
"Jamarca Sanford, Kendrick Lewis, Marshay Green, Cassius Vaughn, Lionel Breaux, Markeith Summers, Mike Wallace – all those guys have shown some good things," Shibest stated. "On the inside, guys like Chris Bowers, Jonathan Cornell, Ashlee Palmer, Allen Walker and a few more have shown the skills and desire we are looking for.
"We still have work to do, but we are getting a good picture of the main players. What you have to balance is not running some of those kids in the ground. We will have to rest some of them as much as we can and have backup plans for all of them, but Coach Nutt and I are firm believers in using our best 11 as much as we possibly can on special teams. One of the best special teams players at Arkansas was Darren McFadden, for instance. Nobody is excluded from special teams with this staff."
Shibest said he has not been pleased with the consistency of the punters this spring, but he expects better in the fall.
"We'll have good competition at punter in the fall. None of them has really taken the bull by the horns this spring – their consistency has not been good. They have all shown they can do it, but none of the three – Justin Sparks, Rob Park, Bryan Powers – have done well day-in-and-day-out," he explained.
At placekicker, junior Josh Shene is the main guy.
"Josh is the frontrunner. He had a great freshman year and then tailed off a little last year, but he did not have a horrible year last year," James assessed. "They are not going to make them all, that's just a fact. We expect perfection, but we won't get it. We've got some other kids competing out there – David Hankins, Ben Meadows, Will Foster – but they are works in progress.
"In practice, Justin Sparks has shown the most in kicking off. That animal has really changed with the kickoff being from the 30 instead of the 35. Our goal used to be to stop returns inside the 20. Now it's inside the 30 and we feel pretty good. You just have to see it that way. It's hard to get kids who can kick it five yards deep in the end zone and anything short of that and return guys are going to bring it out because they have more room to operate."
Shibest is very pleased with the snappers and holder.
"Rob Park is an excellent holder. He's got great, quick hands and he and Josh work well together. Preston Powers has done an excellent job deep snapping on punts and field goals/PAT," he added.
In the return game, Shibest sees veterans and experience.
"Wallace has a lot of speed and that's what we are looking for in kickoff returns. We want speed and a little bigger body there. In punt returns, I feel real good about Marshay and Dexter," he closed. "They are quality there. They have shown me they can catch the ball and know what to do with it when they get it."
Overall, it was hard to get a real gauge on some aspects of special teams in spring training because the coaches started from scratch and did very little "live" work from a full unit standpoint. Most of the special teams work revolved around individual drills and finding individuals who best suited each duty. Shibest was satisfied he identified enough willing and able candidates to piece those various units together successfully in August.
There are a couple of things we do know. The return specialists – namely Wallace, Green and McCluster – are proven commodities who have home run capabilities. Shene didn't have "the best" of springs, but he's capable and dedicated and will get it right by fall. The holder-snapper battery of Powers and Park are as good as we have had. That function is often taken for granted, but a failure there can win and lose tight games in about three seconds – ask Tony Romo.
The punters – as a group – had ups and downs all spring. Some days, they hit the ball with authority. Some days made you shake your head. As Shibest indicated, the lack of consistency is a concern. And kickoffs? The Rebs need help in that area pronto.
Special Teams -
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