Overview – Special teams play is often overlooked in the game of football. There is seldom recognition, as drawing a great deal of attention usually isn't desired.
In 2007, however, the special teams unit produced far too many headaches for a reeling Ole Miss squad. From rugby kicks to poor return coverage, many games were altered due to inconsistent specialty practice.
With that in mind, it was almost fitting that a 3-9 season ended due to a back-breaking punt return by Mississippi State's Derek Pegues. Special teams were dreadful during the year, with a loss to the in-state rival only magnifying the problem.
Suffice to say, Houston Nutt and staff knew they had their hands full once they stepped foot on campus. But upon arrival, the new regime changed the attitude toward special teams contributions, using pride as a rallying cry for Ole Miss last season. Many familiar faces increased their production in each and every game, as a former weakness quickly became strength in the team's Cotton Bowl run.
There were no setbacks. Not one kickoff or punt returned for a touchdown all season. Punter Rob Park grew stronger with more playing time, doing his part by flipping the field for the Rebel defense with a punting average of 38.9.
Joshua Shene found his former self, leading the team in points with 103 on the year. He converted 52-of-52 point after attempts, while also connecting on 17-of-21 field goals (81.0 pct). Better yet, he was 15-of-16 with field goals from 1-39 yards, with a long of 47.
With the departure of kickoff specialist Will Moseley before the 2007 season, kickoffs became a glaring problem for Ole Miss in his absence.
But Justin Sparks was asked to handle the duties last season and performed well. Despite missing time due to illness, Sparks booted 72 kickoffs for 4,572 yards and a 63.5 average for the year. Ten of his kickoffs went for touchbacks, while none were returned for touchdowns.
Punt returner Marshay Green was electric in 2008, grabbing 35 punts for 381 yards and a touchdown. The shifty receiver had another touchdown called back in the Cotton Bowl, proving once again that he is one of the more dynamic returners in the conference.
Despite losing kick returner Mike Wallace to graduation, Brandon Bolden and Lionel Breaux return this spring with valuable experience for the job. While Wallace returned 35 kicks for 861 yards and a touchdown on the year, Bolden did hold a 15.4 yard average per return on eight attempts. What the Rebels do lose is speed, as Wallace's straight-line burst is hard to replace.
Returning Starters: PK Joshua Shene, PR Marshay Green, LS Preston Powers
Other Key Returnees: K/P Justin Sparks, KR Brandon Bolden, KR Lionel Breaux
Key Signees: K Andrew Ritter, P Tyler Campbell
Key Losses: P Rob Park, KR Mike Wallace
Quotable – Senior Joshua Shene
On entering his senior year:
"I was talking to my Dad the other day and we were discussing how it seemed like it was just the other day I was signing at Ole Miss and now it's almost over. I have one semester left after this one before I graduate and one more football season. Will Moseley was a senior when I got here and he told me how fast it would go by, but I didn't believe him. He was right. It has flown by. It's ridiculous, really."
On his improvements in 2008:
"I don't want to put the blame on anyone but myself, but injuries really hurt me in 2007. I was determined to come back with a good year last season and I was able to do that. I was able to help my team out more. I worked hard and stayed healthy and a good year was the result. I took better care of myself and did a lot more stretching in 2008 and that helped a lot."
On what the coaching staff did to help his performance:
"Our coaches now want us to kick daily, but they understand you can't kick for an hour-and-a-half and be productive. It's not going to happen. They don't get upset if they don't see us kicking, which is both smart and nice. You can over kick, believe me. You just get worn out in your hip muscles and it gets to the point of diminishing returns. It's like over training. After a while, you aren't accomplishing anything. Your production decreases. It's the same with kicking. With a dead leg, you can lose distance and accuracy. Coach (Houston) Nutt and Coach (James) Shibest understand that and that really helps all of us stay at a high level of performance."
On exploring the possibility of handling kickoff duties:
"I would like to try doing some kicking off. I want a taste at the next level and in order to do that everyone tells me you have to be able to kickoff as well as placements. Coach Shibest wants to make sure I don't mess up my field goal kicking form, but I don't think I will. I just have to get my steps down for kicking off and I think it will work out."
On his mindset during clutch situations:
"I'm not relaxed to the point of being lackadaisical but I am relaxed to the point where I don't let external influences bother me. I know if I don't perform I can be beaten out, but being relaxed is part of being effective for me. I try to tune everything out except what I have to do. The stuff going on around me does not seem to hinder me."
On replacing PAT holder Rob Park:
"Justin Sparks is working at holding now and so is WR Richie Contartesi. Justin is doing very well right now. I was extremely comfortable with Rob, but so far Justin has done well. I am anxious to see how he does in live work in spring, but I have confidence in him. "
On his adjustments to a new holder:
"It's a bigger adjustment than people think to get it right and holding is important. Justin has good hands. The difference right now is that Rob moved his hands away, except for one finger at the top of the ball, so all I could see was the ball. Justin's hands are more visible right now, but he's working on clearing that off hand away."
On the importance of timing between snapper, holder and kicker:
"With Preston, Rob and I, we were almost automatic between 1.25 seconds and 1.3 seconds. A good time is lower than 1.3, but you don't want to get too fast. You need to stay between 1.25 and 1.3, so we will be working on the timing of the kicks in spring real hard."
On helping the incoming specialists:
"I'm not going to be too hard on them, but it will be my job to show them how to work and to show them our routine. Most kickers have never lifted weights before or worked real hard on their craft, but we work really hard to get it right here. I just want to show them how it's done and what is expected and help them with their confidence. Bryson Rose was a freshman last year and didn't know the ropes, but now he gets it and is working hard. I have met the two new kickers and I don't think that will be a problem, but they do have to learn."
On the team's expectations for 2009:
"We have more internal expectations. Everyone sees and knows how good we can be. We are at a point now where we aren't going to accept losing like maybe we did in years prior. We are much more confident and have a lot higher expectations for ourselves than in the past."
Final Analysis – Following a strong season in 2008, the special teams unit appears solid headed into spring, despite the absence of departed seniors Rob Park and Mike Wallace.
Replacing Park won't be easy, but Sparks has handled punting duties before, so there shouldn't be a noticeable drop-off in production at the position. A wildcard in the discussion is junior Bryan Powers, who has proven sporadic since arriving in Oxford last season. Both are capable, but Sparks certainly holds the edge as spring approaches.
Losing Wallace on kick returns is a considerable blow, but shouldn't be devastating. Breaux has good speed, but Bolden was a stalwart with Wallace in return situations late in the season. There are other candidates obviously, with a few skill players in the Rebels' recruiting class sure to get looks. The goal, however, is for Breaux or Bolden to grab the job, with guys like Enrique Davis and Devin Thomas factoring in as well.
We'd be remiss without mentioning long snapper Preston Powers and his worth to Ole Miss' successes last season. Powers has been both steady and reliable throughout his career, as he triggers the Rebels' special teams each game out. He was flawless last season, and only looks to improve as spring approaches.
With the start of spring practice a little over a week away, Nutt and coach James Shibest appear set with special teams, as most contributors return after a sound year.
Finding replacements for Park and Wallace are priority one, but a wealth of possibilities remain. Who steps up, however, will be the key. The staff will hope to keep the ST momentum rolling in 2009.
Spring Preview: Special Teams
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