Just For Kicks

While most fans have their attention locked on the productivity of the offense, or perhaps the efficacy of the new-look defense, a shadow looms large over the spectre of special teams this fall. While there are a lot of returning players that give this overlooked aspect of college football a chance to be good, some of the specialist roles are question marks. Here is a progress report, plus more practice notes.

The thesis for Stanford's 2004 special teams is that they have a chance to be quite good... if only they can solidify the kicking, punting, snapping and returners.

You laugh, but nine or 10 of the players on the field at any one time for Stanford in a special teams situation are non-specialists. The protection on punts, PATs and field goals; the cover men on kickoffs and punts; and the wedge/blockers on returns - these are the untold warriors who often make or break a special teams play. The good news is that many of those role players are in their second or third year of special teams duty. The Jared Newberry's, Oshiomogho Atogwe's, David Bergeron's, Alex Smith's, Matt Traverso's, Mike Silva's and more. They are the reason Stanford held an advantage of some eight yards better field position after kickoff than their opponents.

"We have a lot of guys returning who have played," notes special teams coordinator Tom Quinn. "We just have to work on our fundamentals. I expect that the experience factor will be helpful for us this fall."

But your wandering eye cannot help but move to those specialists who are the quiet engines behind these units. Eric Johnson is gone to the NFL's Tennessee Titans, and so too is his strong punting and steady kickoffs. Drew Caylor was the long snapper who made Johnson look so good, but he graduated and is in NFL camp with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Luke Powell was an All-American for Stanford as a returner, but as he runs back kicks for the San Diego Chargers, Stanford seeks a new punt return man. Nick Sebes has hung up his football cleets to go full-time with track in his senior year, taking with him his better than 22-yard average running back kickoffs.

Now our attention moves to Michael Sgroi, Jay Ottovegio, Brent Newhouse - the specialists who have to step up into newer and bigger roles to allow the 2004 Stanford special teams to be as good as they can be.

Sgroi is different from Ottovegio and Newhouse in that he is a redshirt junior. Now going into his third year of kicking for the Cardinal, expectations are justifiably high for the heralded place kicker from Michigan. Last year his inconsistency in placing the ball on kickoffs kept him on the sidelines in favor of punter Eric Johnson. Sgroi has and had a clearly stronger leg, but spraying the ball erraticly was unacceptable.

"We know I can put the ball in the endzone," says the former Central Catholic standout. "But they want me to place it better in the corners."

While the placement of a kickoff has both mental and physical aspects to its coordination, but Sgroi's bugaboo has been his back the last few years. After wearing an immobilizing brace last summer, he healed some of those problems, and now he enters this fall on the heels of his first healthy off-season at Stanford.

"Now versus last year is night and day because I have confidence in my back," Sgroi proclaims. "After I hit a few balls well, my confidence really soars. I know I can hit every ball now intead of thinking about hurting back when I kick."

Field goals are an area where Sgroi did kick in 2003, though the results are not something he wishes to repeat. He made just seven field goals on the year, with a long of 38 yards. Stanford attempted only 13 field goals because of low confidence in Sgroi's consistency and range. He has the leg to knock the ball a good distance, but without precision and accuracy, the team opted instead to go for fourth down conversions. The rejuvenated kicker, though, is brimming with confidence after his healthy and productive off-season.

Sgroi put together a plan with graduate assistant Nate Hackett for the off-season, which gave the fourth-year kicker a set of 36 kicks to try each day. The distances ranged from 27 yards out to 52 yards, moving all over the field between the hash marks. Sgroi marked down every made or failed attempt, and by the end of the summer was hitting 99% of kicks under 30 yards, greater than 90% of kicks between 30 and 39 yards, and better than 70% of his attempts from 40 yards and out.

"Mike is hitting the ball really well," praises Quinn. "But it's also good that Derek is putting the competition back in there."

The special teams coordinator is talking about redshirt freshman kicker Derek Belch, who has a big leg and the potential to push Sgroi in kickoffs as well as field goals.

Two of Belch's classmates are also key specialists who will be saddled with heavy responsibilities in just their first year of play. Punter Jay Ottovegio has the burden of replacing the 42.9-yard average that Eric Johnson gave the Card last year. Ottovegio took a redshirt last year, and in practices he showed flashes but also inconsistency. In the spring, it was hard to gauge how he improved, given the pour long snapping he had at his disposal.

But the optimistic punter cites several factors that argue for his chance to surprise the skeptics this fall. Though he has yet to see a second of live action in a college football game, he feels ready. That confidence starts with the training he did this summer back home in Florida. There he worked for the first time with a new kicking coach, who also works in the off-season with the specialists of the "Big Three" schools in the Sunshine State. By the end of the summer, Ottovegio was working two or three times a week with the trainer. His mechanics and mentality have both improved.

"The key is to limit the things that you think about each kick - simplify," Ottovegio offers. "We also worked on my flexibility, which is one of the most important parts of punting. I didn't really lengthen my distance, but I've improved my hang time. And my consistency is better. I was at 60-70% at the beginning of the summer, but now I'm at 80-90%."

"I've become more confident," he continues. "I'm really looking forward to the season, knowing how well I improved."

"His drops are more consistent. His steps and mechanics are better," Quinn echoes on his punter's improvement.

Ottovegio acknowledges, though, that all beautiful boots he can muster against air mean nothing unless he can replicate that success against a live rush. This camp needs to give the first-year punter as good a taste as possible of what that will be like come in-season Saturdays. Quinn will tell you that he is unconcerned about Ottovegio's ability to get punts off against a live rush, simply because the Floridian has a motion that gets the ball off a step faster than most punters. However, there are a world of mental considerations. Pac-10 athletes will bring size, speed and ferocity at Ottovegio in a way that he has never seen before in his career.

"That's something I never had to deal with in high school," the punter admits. "There is a big difference between air versus a live rush. There is an adrenaline and energy I will have to manage."

Ottovegio also needs a consistent snap to come to him for any of the above to make a lick of difference. If the long snapping sprays the ball left and right, high and low - even the most accomplished punter will suffer miserably.

While snapping has seen some improvements since the abysmal spring, nobody has won the job and certainly nobody yet deserves it. The three primary players in this position are Newhouse, Newberry and Bergeron. The latter two are fifth-year seniors attempting to pick up the long snapping trade; both indeed stayed long after practice Tuesday to work on the skill together. Newhouse is a different animal altogether in that he walked on to Stanford with the explicit purpose of snapping. Fresh out of Harvard-Westlake in Southern California last fall, he looked like an unlikely participant in Pac-10 football at 6'4" and 215 pounds. Keep in mind that snappers not only need to execute their skill to put the ball back to the punter, but they also have to block afterward and then run down the field in coverage. But Newhouse is now up to 230 pounds and is as secure a player as you can find on this football team.

"The biggest thing is confidence," the snapping specialist declares. "I've been doing this so long, and I just realized that I don't need to doubt myself."

Newhouse downplays the physical challenges that he will face when it comes to blocking at the college level. He might be right, and you can point to a number of successful snappers in Stanford's history and throughout college football who have been supposedly "undersized" for their blocking responsibilities.

"There is nothing physical to it at all," he confidently confides. "When I first came in, I wasn't used to blocking and had to pick it up quickly. I have some hard knocks, and I get knocked on my ass a few times. But it's not a big deal. I take a few drop steps, get low and get my head up quickly."

Newhouse has settled down his lateral variability in his snaps, which is more important for the ball a punter receivers than the vertical spread. But every time you talk to the redshirt freshman, he brings the conversation back to the mental game and confidence.

"The most important thing is to not think about one thing too much," he explains. "If you are too worried about your blocking, it will hurt your snap. If all you think about is your snap, then the blocking will suffer."

Tom Quinn and Nate Hackett continue to work with the snappers, and they are asking for perfection. Excuses of inexperience, either in the skill or at this level, won't do. Field position depends on punting, and punting depends on the snapping. Quinn says that the job is still open, with Newhouse and Newberry locked "dead even" in the race. Cardinalmaniacs have to hope one of those horses pulls ahead in the next three weeks and pulls this special teams spectre into a better light.

  • On the subject of special teams specialists, there remains the question of the return spots. Right now David Marrero projects as the top punt returner, with Greg Camarillo as his backup. Kickoff returns are less clear, with at least four or five players still competing. Marrero, Camarillo, Kenneth Tolon, Mark Bradford and T.J. Rushing are the leading candidates. You can probably expect Tolon to start the season at one of those two spots.
  • The offense took a solid step back Tuesday as they installed some new components. The significant addition was the empty backfield or "spread" offense. The attacking Stanford defense sent a deadly rush of outside pressure that gave the Card quarterbacks trouble. Trent Edwards did a fair job, improving as the practice went on, but he has a ways to go before this part of the offense can be successful. Second string QB David Lofton had rather rough time with the spread offense.
  • Over on defense, it was noteworthy to see some competition effects at the cornerback positions. While Stanley Wilson, Leigh Torrence and T.J. Rushing are all putative co-starters at the two spots, this was the first practice in at least a year where I can remember one of them running with the second team. Torrence was in for nickel packages with the first unit defense, but in the base defense he ran strictly second team. This is not a depth chart shift that necessarily will play out in September, but it is emblematic of how the staff wants to daily move players up and down based on performance. We will watch and see how Torrence and others respond.

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