Fall Camp Focus: Special Teams

Special teams are always an integral part of a team's success or failure and Oregon State has had the luxury of having two superb place-kickers in Kirk Yliniemi and Alexis Serna and a set of pretty good punters in Sam Paulescu and Carl Tobey. Where the Beavers have been lacking is in the return game where the conference statistics from the last four years show a not so effective return game.

Part of the reason of the woes can be tied to transition. Special team’s coach Bruce Read was rehired in 2004 and his system is just starting to take hold. In his first tenure in Corvallis Read’s units blocked an amazing 15 kicks in just two years compared to 14 blocks in the last four years. But eight of the 14 have come in the last two seasons.

Derrick Doggett and Victor Butler are rangy and have bought into Read’s system. Expect to see them affecting more punts this year.

On the return side of punts the Men in Black have never finished higher then seventh in the conference in return yards and have only returned one punt for a touchdown in the last four years. They were they only team, along with Washington, that didn’t return a punt for a touchdown last year in the Pac-10.

OSU Punt Returns
Year    Avg (Pac-10 finish)        
----- ------------------
2005 7.5 (eighth) 2004 7.1 (ninth) 2003 5.2 (ninth), 1 touchdown 2002 8.2 (seventh)
OSU Net Punting
Year     Avg (Pac-10 finish)
-----   ------------------
2005   36.3 (third)
2004   37.5 (third)
2003   35.5 (ninth)
2002   34.6 (sixth)

On the other side of the coin the Beavs have ranked in the middle to the top of the conference in punt net average finishing third in the last two seasons. A large part of that success can be attributed directly to Paulescu. And that brings us to one of the largest question marks this fall, the punter.

Roseburg High’s Kyle Loomis comes to the Mid Valley with plenty of credentials. He earned all-state and all-conference punting honors as a junior and senior while setting the school record for yards per punt at an amazing 45.5 last season.

His high school coach called him their defensive player of the year as a senior while Riley called him the best prep punter on the West Coast. And the news just keeps getting better. Loomis was super excited about contributing as a freshman and arrived early in the summer to start practicing. He also loves the idea of having a full-time special team’s coach.

Although all the signs point to Loomis being able to pick up the slack, it remains to see how he reacts in a game situation. The players are faster, bigger and quicker. Read and Loomis will initially work on just getting rid of the ball quickly then move into directional kicking a year or so from now. If Loomis doesn’t work out junior Jon Stowbridge is ready to go, but he is inconsistent as the spring sessions showed.

OSU Kickoff Returns
Year     Avg (Pac-10 finish)
-----   ------------------
2005   21.0 (sixth)
2004   17.5 (tenth)
2003   15.8 (tenth)
2002   21.6 (third)

On kickoff returns OSU has fared better, but not much better. The Beavers are one of four teams (Oregon State, Arizona, Washington, California) in the Conference of Champions who have not returned a kickoff for a touchdown in the last four years.

In the last four years the Beavers have finished last in kickoff returns twice. Last year’s sixth place finish at 21.0 yards per return was their best finish since 2002 when they finished third at 21.6 per game.

The scary or perhaps welcoming fact about the punt and return games is that they have several new people performing the return duties. Sammie Strougther, Gerard Lawson, Ruben Jackson and Patrick Fuller are all slated for punt and kickoff returns.

Stroughter fielded punts averaging 6.5 yards per return with a long of 29 yards. He made good decisions, but sometimes did too much dancing instead of going straight up field. Lawson, Jackson and Fuller have never fielded a punt in a game situation at OSU.

Although some people think the team will be better off without Lamar Herron, he was fantastic at returning kicks with a 24.3 average. He had one kickoff returned for a touchdown called back against Louisville and several long runs negated by various penalties. Herron was the type of player that could take it to the house each time he touched the ball.

Jackson is a similar type of player, but it doesn’t matter what type of player he is if he can’t keep on top of his school work. The most recent report out of Corvallis is that he is very close to becoming eligible. The final results will be known Aug. 18.

The way the roster is setup right now, Stroughter and Lawson would handle punts while Jackson and Fuller would handle kickoffs. Jackson and Stroughter are the only two that have fielded kickoffs and punts in game situations. Depending on Strougher's involvement with the offense he could give up his punt returning role.

Oh, and I guess I should mention Alexis Serna who made 23 of 28 field goals last year. He will be solid once again.

The bottom line is the special teams must be a positive unit for Oregon State to stay competitive and give them a little edge. In the third year of Read's system I expect to see a marked improvement in the return games in 2006 due to better blocking and understanding by the players of where they are supposed to be and what they are supposed to be doing.

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