Expert Analysis: Special Teams vs. Wake

The Bootleg is proud to welcome Aaron Mills as a regular contributor to our popular "Expert Analysis" series. Aaron was a kicker and punter for Stanford from 1991-1994 and has stayed involved in the football business as a consultant to aspiring specialists and we are excited to gain helpful insights from his experience and perspective.

Expert Analysis: Special Teams vs. Wake

Hello Cardinal fans! Class of ‘94 Stanford football alumnus Aaron Mills here! I have had the position of being a kicker, a kickoff specialist, a punter, a holder and sometimes in on tackles for 48 games during my college football career on the Farm.

Thanks to The Bootleg, I now have the opportunity and privilege of proudly covering the Cardinal's Special Teams play for my alma mater, and I'm happy to say that Stanford Football is back, "back in black", that is! Personally, I loved the black uniforms and it really makes me feel like Coach Harbaugh is doing all the right things to put the football program in the right direction, both on and off the field.

We'll take one game at a time of course, but the beginning of this 2010 season is looking pretty promising. Coach Harbaugh and his excellent staff, including one of my former teammates, David Shaw, have brought the swagger that has been missing for a few years.

We sure do miss Toby Gerhart's production from last year, but I must give a huge thumbs up for the way the rest of the team has filled in the gaps. The defensive intensity appears to rival that our memorable Blockbuster Bowl season in 1992 under Bill Walsh with the "G-Men" featuring Darrien Gordon and 2010 Stanford Athletic Hall of Fame selection John Lynch in our secondary. Everyone seems to understand their roles well, and so far, so good. Kudos to our coaching staff and the players for stepping up and being a strong force. Palo Alto is back on the map!

I had a nice dinner in my current city of Las Vegas while watching the Wake Forest game on ESPN2 after Notre Dame was finished playing. We were up 14-7 and pulling away when the coverage of our game was started. I would have loved to have been back on The Farm to see the game in person, but writing about the game would have been much more difficult without the benefit of replays on TV.

I have a small apology before I start my analysis of our win over the Demon Deacons. Here I am supposed to be writing about the Cardinal's special teams and the Stanford punting unit only came out once! That's actually a good sign though; meaning we were moving the ball and scoring 68 points. The only game during my eligibility in which I didn't officially participate was against San Jose State my senior season, a game in which I had no punting attempts. In this game, redshirt sophomore Daniel Zylchlinski made the most if his only punt, which went for 39 yards and no return on the kick. A net 39-yard average on the day is a job well done indeed. Best of luck to Daniel as we go forward, we are both fellow Floridians, and it's always nice to add a little spice from the southeast to the flavor of Stanford Football.

On the kicking side of things, the more we see of Nate Whitaker (#39) and the less we see of Daniel usually means a good thing in the points column. Believe me, when I was the starting punter, I loved kicking the ball, but I preferred having PATs and field goals over giving the ball up without scoring. I want to write more about Daniel, but if we keep scoring 50+ points, it might be a fairly challenging proposition.

Nate was the busy one on Saturday, kicking off 11 times and having 10 PAT attempts. Without doing too much research, Whitaker was one of the busiest kickers in Stanford history on Saturday night (rivaled perhaps only by Kevin Miller's two punts, six PATS, 10 PATs, and two made field goals in the 58-49 track meet win over Oregon in 1997). Nate is currently on the Lou Groza Award watch list, and that is a remarkable accomplishment in and of itself. Nate was 8-10 on his PATs, with his two missed attempts pushed to the right on what looked like adequate execution from the snapper and holder. I'm sure that will be looked at on film this week to see what went wrong. These were "unforced errors" and the issue can be fixed easily with simple adjustments. From my observation, Nate does a great job at driving his kickoffs, but looked a little lax in some of his PAT follow-throughs, even on the ones he made, they often were pushed right. As a former Stanford kicker that was 50-50 on PATs for my career, I can assure you that one has to lose himself in the game and methodically drive those kicks. Every point counts. (Just ask ASU after their bitter one-point loss to Wisconsin when the badgers blocked a potentially game-tying Sun Devil PAT attempt!)

As for Wake Forest's special teams, before I get to our kickoffs and coverage, the Deacons utilize the not so often seen three blockers in front of the punter, of which I'm not a big fan (Wake actually used #69 Dennis Godfrey a 6-3, 335-pound offensive tackle, to help protect). It's a spread formation that invites the rush to the punter almost every time. I think that this formation can be a little disconcerting to a punter, making him feel like his punt could get blocked with each kick. I am more of a fan of the single up-back blocking with a tighter formation at the line, so at least on the occasions in which the opposition is in "return mode" versus "block the punt" mode, the punter has some comfortable room for getting off a nice punt.

Moving on the Stanford's kickoffs - we have a lot of intensity in our coverage. I was impressed with Nate's ability to drive the ball deep on his kickoffs. However, his kicks were sometimes more of a drive rather than high hang-time kicks. On the occasions in which Nate was able to get the ball 5-8 yards deep into the end zone for a touchback, we were alright. But on low, driving kicks, even if they make it two yards deep into the end zone, they are going to bring it out because they have plenty of time to navigate the field and see their blocks ahead of them. In being perfectly objective, if we have no wind or the wind at our backs, then a well- placed, high-hanging kickoff to allow our coverage team to get down the field might be the better way to go.

On another note, it's nice to see WR/KR Chris Owusu (#81) back from injury. He had two touchdowns among his three catches on Saturday and we all enjoyed his multiple kickoff returns for touchdowns last year, conjuring up pleasant memories of Glyn Milburn, who terrified our opponents back during my playing days in the early 1990s.

We have a big game in South Bend next week, and Notre Dame lost a game in demoralizing fashion this past Saturday to Michigan State. If anyone watched the game, MSU won on a special teams play in overtime. Michigan State ran a gutsy, yet brilliant fake field goal and passed for a touchdown to close the game out. I'm not suggesting we throw a fake in against Notre Dame since they might be more weary of it... but reverse psychology sometimes works. We will have to wait and see. Stanford fans and fellow alumni, the time is now to get fired up for next weekend. Notre Dame is 1-2 with their new coach and they will be really hungry for a win when we come to town. Let's keep that Stanford swagger and execute next week in South Bend, where we have not emerged victorious since my own redshirt sophomore season in 1992. We have as much to gain by winning next week as Notre Dame does. A 4-0 start will only bring us the much deserved national attention we have begun to establish this season.

Go Cardinal!

About the Author: Aaron Mills kicked and punted at Stanford University from 1990-94 and was an Honorable Mention All-Pac 10 as a punter in 1993. After graduating from Stanford and having reconstructive knee surgery in 1994, the Satellite Beach, Florida-native was invited to participate in the annual NFL Combine in Indianapolis in 1995. A 6-0, 180-pound specialist, he ended up kicking for the San Jose Sabercats of the Arena Football League in 1995-96, playing an integral part in San Jose 's road to the AFL Western Division title in 1996. That same year, he set an Arena Football League record by making a 63-yard field goal against the Florida Bobcats, which tied the long-standing NFL record (held by Tom Dempsey 1970 & Jason Elam 1998). Aaron retired from kicking after the 1996 season to pursue a career in real estate while continuing to work with aspiring kickers and punters. He has been a featured expert on Aaron and his wife now make their home in lively Las Vegas, Nevada.

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