Pitt's Special Teams

The Pitt football team has had some success on kickoff returns this season, certainly moreso than previous years, and the punt-return game hasn't been a comedy of errors like it was for the most part last season.

However, it was pointed out that the Panthers have not had a touchdown runback from either unit in some three years. That's nearly 200 punt or kickoff returns without a score, and Pittsburgh coach Dave Wannstedt -- who also was the special teams coordinator the past two years -- downplayed the stat.

"No, I really don't look at it like that,'' Wannstedt said. "The goal every week is to return one, but as long as we handle the ball good and as long as we keep working ... but it's tough and getting a lot tougher.

"I'll tell you what, this rugby kicking has put a whole different perspective on punt returns. The shield punt and the spread punt thing, it's changed the whole complexion from the big returns that (teams) used to get.''

But he didn't deny that when Pitt (4-1, 1-0) faces Connecticut (3-1, 0-0) in a Big East game Saturday at 3:30 p.m. at Heinz Field, strong special teams play will be at its highest premium yet this season.

"As the competition gets tougher, special teams have a tendency to make more of a difference in a game,'' Wannstedt said. "And I really believe that this is going to be our biggest challenge of the year. There's no question about that, and we've got to find a way on special teams to create field position.''

Pitt leads the Conference in kick-return average, as redshirt freshman Cameron Saddler tops all returners with 31.5 yards per game, which puts him in the top 15 nationally. And redshirt sophomore Aaron Smith has been solid with 7.7 yards per punt return (third in the Conference), but really hasn't come close to breaking loose. Still, neither has hampered Pitt's field position much either way.

"I think field position is important every game, regardless who you're playing,'' Pitt offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti said. "(But) we want to maximize our possessions every series. ... You always look for explosive plays from every area, and we'd like them from our offense, our defense and our special teams.''

Pitt's return-team defense has been excellent, though, to rank 18th nationally on kick-return coverage (18.31 yards per return) and 28th in punt-return defense (4.56 yards per runback).

But the return game still needs some work.

"Our guys know that, and they're working very hard to make things happen,'' Wannstedt said. "With special things, though, you can't force anything. We really don't have a veteran group (on the special teams units).

"We only have four guys covering kickoffs who were on the team last year. We have new kickers, new snappers and new returners. So, we're going through a little transition with our special teams. And the guys have done good.

"So, we're doing some good things,'' Wannstedt added. "But in a game like this, we've got to find a way to make a big play. Usually, on special teams, it comes from just giving great effort.''

Wannstedt noted that redshirt junior punter Dan Hutchins, who averages 38.3 net yards per kick to rank third in the Big East, joined the Panthers as a place-kicker but was developed into a punter.

"With conventional kicking, you couldn't do that,'' Wannstedt said. "I believe all the good returns have the ability to make somebody miss. For sure with punt returners. Aaron Smith hasn't had the big punt return, but he's done a good job handling the ball. On kickoff returns, Cam was doing a great job, but we've got some other guys who have the ability to make things happen back there.''

Saddler was injured during the first half last week at Louisville returning his first punt this season. Wannstedt finally gave him a shot to run back punts after Smith's lackluster performances the first few games, and he nearly broke loose on his only return. However, he also was de-cleated and suffered a sprained ankle that will cause him to miss at least the next couple games.

Sophomore Antwuan Reed, redshirt sophomore Aundre Wright and redshirt freshman Chris Burns are vying for Saddler's kick-return spot. Smith returned to the punt runback team after Saddler's injury and will man that position again.

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