The argument could be made that the single greatest asset for Stanford Football in 2005 that enabled it to finish tied for fourth in the conference, after being predicted to sit in the cellar, was special teams. In fact, head coach Walt Harris said as much throughout the season, recognizing that both the offense and defense had shortcomings in many areas relative to the Cardinal's competition.
Stanford was the proud owner of a fifth-year senior placekicker in Michael Sgroi in his fourth year of experience, a talented punting tandem of Jay Ottovegio and long snapper Brent Newhouse, an explosive game-changing kickoff and punt returner in senior T.J. Rushing, as well as a coach and cadre of players who filled out the special teams units with great execution and strategy.
Stanford twice brought back kickoffs for touchdowns by Rushing and several more times gave the Cardinal excellent field position. By comparison, seven teams in the Pac-10 never scored a touchdown on kickoff returns in 2005. More impressive was the kick/punt coverage teams, which were among the best in the West. Kickoff coverage was an exercise in control and domination, regularly pinning opponents inside the 20 to start their drive. The Cardinal not only had a strong and controlled leg in Sgroi, but also a coverage scheme and execution that dropped like a hammer on returners, with a net kickoff average of 43.7 yards. Today's opponent, Oregon, managed an average kickoff of 35.8 yards.
Stanford's kickoff coverage was second best in the league, as was its punt coverage. Ottovegio's average punt of 40.6 yards last fall was not extraordinary; six teams in the conference matched or bettered that number. But his hang time and direction coupled with the coverage team created the number two net in the Pac-10 of 36.6 yards. In Ottovegio's 67 punts last year, opponents could return only a combined 133 yards.
The architect of Stanford's stellar special teams is gone, with Tom Quinn being scooped up by the New York Giants in the off-season. More perhaps than the lost personnel, the turnover at the special teams coordinator position could cause concern for the Cardinal with that phase of the game this season. Walt Harris, however, went after a man cut from the same cloth as Quinn. Jeff Hammerschmidt not only played with Quinn at Arizona and learned together under head coach Dick Tomey. The two were also roommates.
"Tom has done a great job here. I'm just trying to keep up," Hammerschmidt says of his friend and predecessor. "We have the same background, being roommates from day one at Arizona and going through the same lessons."
"One thing that helps keep this thing rolling is that we use the same terminology," he adds. "Though we do have different coaching styles, and he's better looking."
Quinn also carried a little more special teams coaching experience, though Hammerschmidt ran special teams in the Big Ten in 1998 and '99 at Indiana. Quinn's special teams at Stanford improved during his tenure, as he honed his own skills and better evaluated and harnessed his available personnel. Hammerschmidt has some big pieces he has to replace, but one unit with high expectations is the punting game. Ottovegio and Newhouse are now working together for the third straight year. Gone are some seniors that were so crucial to coverage in last year's unit, including current Oakland Raiders upstart Timi Wusu. But this year's gunners have excellent speed and athletic ability, including Tim Sims and 2005 special teams standout Wopamo Osaisai.
On paper, people will expect Ottovegio to increase his punting average and net. There is no room for improvement on the success for him getting off his punts, as there were zero blocks or miscues in 67 attempts last year. But Hammerschmidt has areas he feels the redshirt junior can fine-tune his craft.
"We just want him to do what he did last year, and get more consistent with his get-off and hangtime," the coach comments. "It is hard to see in the stats, but his experience in big games is great and will really help this year in all aspects. And Jay is also our holding now, which is great because he's a good athlete and can throw the ball."
The Cardinal often have had a quarterback hold for field goals and extra points, including graduated fifth-year senior Kyle Matter in recent seasons. The upside of a quarterback is his sure hands in receiving a snap, not unlike a shotgun while with the offense, as well as the chance to throw on a fake. However, specialists operate on their own during practice, and it is costly to pull a quarterback off the offense during limited NCAA-allowed practice time. Ottovegio instead is able to practice an order of magnitude more repetitions with the kicker(s). Consider that one small advantage for this year's kickers, who need all the help that they can get.
An open competition played out through the spring and into fall camp between redshirt junior Derek Belch and redshirt sophomore Aaron Zagory. Both are walk-ons, though Belch came to The Farm with a stronger pedigree while Zagory joined the team as an out-of-the-blue student. Belch looked to be the heir apparent with a much stronger leg, particularly in comparison to Zagory's first year with the team. The latter had the weakest leg we have ever seen from a roster placekicker in this program. But the strides he made since that first forgettable year of practice have been nothing short of extraordinary. Zagory now has respectable range, and more importantly he has demonstrated greater consistency and accuracy than Belch in practices. Zagory surprisingly won the field goal kicking duties in August, though Belch is also teed up for duty.
"Aaron is a guy who we really feel good about, really improving with his distance," Hammerschmidt says. "Belch we feel good about, too - maybe use him for longer distance. We don't know how far that would be. It depends on the wind and the game conditions."
Both were shaky at times in practices this fall and spring, and asking either one to kick their first college field goal in an environment like Autzen Stadium is a frightful thought. Zagory would hopefully have a chance to rid himself of some butterflies with an extra point before lining up for a field goal. Belch could get his feet under him with a kickoff prior to attempting a long field goal.
But the kickoff duties will be no walk in the park for Belch. This year marks a new challenge for Belch and his brethren across college football, using a shorter one-inch tee for kickoffs. While fans expect that to put fewer kickoffs into the endzone, Hammerschmidt says that distance is not the real challenge.
"He has the leg to do it," he says of Belch. "He's done a great job. But the hang time will be lower. Guys will take it out of the endzone more often now."
Stanford also stands to benefit from the rule change, when its returners take the field for kickoffs. The question is who and how well will the Cardinal continue what Rushing delivered last year. The starting returning pair are expected to be redshirt sophomore Anthony Kimble and fifth-year senior Marcus McCutcheon. But there are more players right behind that duo, who the Cardinal could put on the field as they get a feel for the right chemistry and playmaking combination.
"We have about six guys who we'd like to see - sure-handed guys back there with explosiveness," Hammerschmidt says. "Anthony and Marcus are our starters. Jason Evans and Brandon Harrison, too. Those four have shown ability and we feel comfortable with them catching the ball and that they can do some things."
"Wopamo Osaisai is also a guy doing it," the coach continues. "And Toby Gerhart, the freshman, is getting some returns in practice. Wopamo could be really dangerous, but we need to get him enough catches before putting him in the game."
And the final phase of punt returns is the most mysterious of all. For much of camp, there were a trio of top candidates: redshirt junior Nick Sanchez, redshirt freshman Bo McNally and senior Mark Bradford. Today, it is expected instead to be senior Brandon Harrison who takes the lead with punt return duties. Redshirt freshman Chris Hobbs is also in the mix. The shuffle at punt returner has been so varied, not because of the search for a bigtime return playmaker, but instead aiming for a rock-solid man to catch the ball and keep it secure for Stanford.
"We need the punt returner to catch and not give up the ball," Hammerschmidt offers. "Not go with the over-the-shoulder on the five-yardline like last year.
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