There are many facets to special teams play.
Punting, pooch punts, coffin corner punts, punt return, punt coverage, punt protection, punt rush, field goals, field goal protection, field goal blocks, extra points, extra point protection, extra point defense, kickoffs, kickoff coverage, kickoff returns, kickoff return blocking, onside kicks, onside kick receiving, fake punts, fake field goals and all the different things that can take place within each scenario all fall under the special teams umbrella.
To make a blanket statement that the 2007 Ole Miss special teams were bad is a bit much, because a few of those many phases were OK last year, but to say the Rebel special teams needed a major overhaul and tuneup would be dead on.
That's where Special Teams Coordinator James Shibest, and Coach Houston Nutt's philosophy on special teams, comes into play.
"Coach Nutt is a believer in using your best people on special teams," said Shibest. "He also believes in giving special teams enough time in practice to cover all the bases."
Early in fall camp, during a Rebel team meeting, the players were exposed to a highlight tape from Nutt's past at what he calls "the other school."
On the tape, one player was singled out for crushing blocks and big hits. His jersey number was 5. His name was Darren McPhadden.
The point being made to the current crop of Rebels? If D-Mac, a recent $60 million man in the NFL and a Heisman finalist, could garner that much enthusiasm for special teams, nobody was too good to not put his heart and soul into those units.
Nobody, except the quarterbacks, on the Rebel squad has been deemed "too important" to be immune to special teams responsibility.
You will see Ashlee Palmer, Michael Oher, John Jerry, Mike Wallace, Marcus Tillman, Jonathan Cornell, Cordera Eason, Jason Cook, Jamarca Sanford, Kendrick Lewis, Kentrell Lockett, Emmanuel Stephens, Gerald Harris, Marshay Green, Cassius Vaughn, et al, on the Rebel special teams units in one capacity or another.
That alone has to spell improvement.
"We condition our players to be able to handle the extra effort it requires to play on special teams," said Nutt recently. "We try to create an environment where special teams success is a badge of honor and something to get excited about. We try to convey to them how important special teams are by putting our best players out there. When your players understand those things, they buy in and it becomes a competition within the team. Who's going to get the big hit or big block? Who's going to spring the return or block the punt? It becomes contagious and that's the atmosphere we, as coaches, strive for."
As a fan, it's hard to ask for a better philosophy, but no matter how good your support personnel is, the kickers/punters have to perform. Their performances last season were sporadic, to say the least, and the same legs are involved this year.
So why would we expect different results?
For one thing, the kickers and punters are being handled differently. The mental and physical approach is one of building confidence, not overworking them and sticking with them if they do mess up, as Shibest explains.
"We want them to be loose and confident and to know we have their backs when they don't make a perfect kick," he noted. "We also don't want to over kick them. We want their legs fresh and rested. I think our kickers have good potential. We just need to see what they have done in practice transferred to the games."
PK Josh Shene, with a push from freshman Bryson Rose, has been nearly perfect in preseason drills. He appears to have regained his freshman form, but with a more knowing, mature approach. Josh, if practice means something, will have a very good year.
The punting game was very inconsistent in spring and it started out that way in fall, but right before the first scrimmage things started improving.
Senior Rob Park and junior Justin Sparks appeared to relax and kick with less tension. Like a tension-free golf swing, the punts started coming out longer and more consistently good. That trend has continued, knock on wood, since then.
Park, who had the punting job his first two years but lost it to Sparks last season, has won the job with more consistency. Rob has also done a very good job with directional punting, coffin corner kicks and pooch punts - in practice.
Rob will not overpower the ball, but if he can kick it 40 yards with no return, and avoid the 28-yarders we saw at times the last three years, Nutt and Shibest will be happy.
"We've told Rob and Justin that we don't expect them to be perfect. Just relax and give us your best. Their best will be good enough," said Shibest.
Meanwhile, Sparks has capitalized on the relaxed atmosphere by doing a better job with kickoffs. He definitely has the strongest leg of all the kickers, but again, consistency was an issue during spring training. In fall camp, Justin has shed that label and is hitting the ball solidly. When he hits one right, he can kick it to the goalline or beyond a few yards.
Like Shene, Deep Snapper Preston Powers and Park, who holds for placements, are non-issues. They are "masters" of their specialties.
In the return game, Marshay will field the punts and we all know his capabilities to break one. As an added bonus, he's now matured in the position and has a better feel on when to fair catch, when to let the ball go in the end zone, when to leave it alone, etc. In other words, where his decision-making in the past bordered on the risky side, he's more sound in that area of the return game now.
On kickoff returns, the coaches want the ball in the hands of speedster Mike Wallace, if possible. Cordera Eason and Brandon Bolden are also two likely candidates to be deep. Shibest prefers bigger bodies who get downhill quickly and don't mind taking or delivering a hit.
The coaching staff has worked on laying a solid foundation of using frontline support personnel - best players play - and less "pressure" - both physcially and mentally - on the punters and kickers.
In fall camp, that has produced better results than at any time last season.
Usually, that's a good sign of things to come on Saturday.
If the old saying "you play how you practice" holds true, the special teams will show the necessary improvement needed.
Special Teams -
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