Game notes and analysis: special teams

Notes and analysis on the Horns' special teams performance in their 41-7 win over New Mexico State:

Through spring and summer, we've seen Duane Akina's effect on the attitude of this team, particularly its defense. As the season progresses, we should also see what the new secondary coach achieves with what he considers to be the best group of defensive backs he's ever coached. In Saturday night's opener, though, we caught a glimpse of what Akina has already accomplished in one area of his coaching. The former Arizona D-coordinator is in charge of the Horns' punt block unit, and on that unit's very first play of the season, Tony Jeffery sped around the NMSU punt team's left edge, took a perfect angle on a line just in front of Aggie punter Brian Copple, then dove and blocked the punt attempt just after it left Copple's foot. And if Jeffery had somehow missed the block, Rod Babers, coming from just inside of the Horns' redshirt freshman wideout, would have sent it the other way as well. Babers good-naturedly claimed post-game that he got a piece of the punt too, but Jeffery gets the stat sheet credit. Regardless of who sent the ball back towards the goalline, where a herd of Horns pounced on the ball, sending it into the end zone where Phillip Geiggar finally corralled it for six, the fact that Texas scored on a special teams play rather than the opposite (and typical) scenario is hugely encouraging. Credit the players, and Akina, for making it happen. Jeffery, around the blocking unit's left side, also came close to another NMSU punt in the first half.

Behind the punt block unit Saturday stood return man Nathan Vasher. Copple punted five times for New Mexico State and Vasher fielded and returned two of them for 29 yards (a healthy 14.5 per return). On his 16-yard return in the second quarter, the sophomore got to the left sideline and turned upfield before Copple forced him out of bounds. Vasher's success on those two returns make it all the more frustrating that he didn't field two other very returnable (low and short) NMSU punts. The first, punted from midfield late in the first quarter, landed near the 20 yardline (Vasher originally stood near the 10) and rolled all the way to the two, backing up the Texas O and at the time throwing the field position battle strongly in favor of the Aggies. The second, punted from the 27 mid-way through the fourth quarter, traveled 38 yards with the roll, at least a 10 yard swing in favor of NMSU because Vasher failed to field it. Vasher had just three punt returns all last year, and Saturday's opener was his first time to shag punts with the game on the line, so that may explain his caution (trying to avoid a turnover). But with his ability (and to avoid the long rolls on the low, line-drive punts), Vasher needs to track down every punt he can physically get to.

The Horns had a small scare in their punting game when Brian Bradford had an early second quarter attempt tipped by an Aggie rusher coming up the middle. That punt traveled just 34 yards, while Bradford's other three attempts went for 36, 46 and 38. Solid, but not spectacular. The juco transfer's adrenaline must have been pumping for his first kick as a Longhorn, because he boomed one into the end zone from the NMSU 36 when he needed a shorter (or angled) punt. After the tipped punt, Bradford got off a 46-yarder, but it was low and returnable for the Aggie return man, who brought it back 16 yards. Bradford's final punt of the day may have been his best as he hit a high, fair-caught 38-yarder to the NMSU 15. Overall, Bradford averaged 38.2 per punt, but his net total was a disappointing 29.5, no where close to championship caliber.

Dusty Mangum got the call as the team's kickoff man and starting place kicker. The true freshman, with little if any wind, sent the game's opening kickoff to the two yardline. Back-up LB/DE Reed Boyd separated Aggie return man Tony Lukins from the ball about the 20 and Michael Ungar made the recovery, setting the Texas offense up for an easy early scoring opportunity (which, as you know, it did not capitalize on). Like last year, the Texas kick coverage team looks strong, while the UT kickers look just short of strong enough to get the ball into the end zone for a touchback. Mangum's next kickoff went to the five while his final attempt traveled to the 10. Remember, those kicks were not into the wind and they looked to have had the benefit of a very slight tailwind. After Mangum's three chances, Mack Brown decided to give another walk-on a few tries. Juco transfer Dan Smith, who joined the team early last week, sent his first attempt to the 14 but settled down and knocked his next four kickoffs to the 10, the five, the five and the two. One of the Horns' grad assistants knows Smith, from Waldorf juco in Iowa, and the coaches liked what they saw from the newest member of the team on Monday and Tuesday of last week (the only days Texas could work on kickoffs because of the inclement weather). For the game, the Aggies' best starting field position came after a personal foul penalty moved NMSU to their own 40 after Mangum's final kick. The Horns' coverage team limited New Mexico State to returns of 21, 16, 14, 8, 17, 13, 17 and 22 yards (just 16 yards per return).

The Longhorn kick return team only saw the field twice, once on the opening kickoff of the second half and again after the Aggies put up their only points of the game late in the third quarter. NMSU kicker Adam DeGroff sent his first kickoff, with little if any wind, into the end zone for a touchback, something neither of the Texas kickers achieved despite eight opportunities to do so. On his second try, DeGroff gave the ball a ride to the six where Ivan Williams fielded and returned 23 yards. Victor Ike and Williams were the return men on both kickoffs. Vasher is the No. 3 man and could see some action at kick returner this season in place of Williams.

In the field goal and extra point department, Mangum had a perfect evening, splitting the uprights on two three-pointers (from 24 and 17 yards) and all five PATs. We'll have to wait until this Saturday (or beyond) to see how the true freshman handles the longer field goal attempts in a game situation. Brown said part of the reason for choosing to attempt the short field goal on the first drive of the second half rather than go for the TD was to give Mangum a pressure attempt, but one that was very make-able.

The Aggies successfully converted a fake punt on a fourth-and-one from their own 24 late in the third quarter. Copple took the snap and dashed toward right end and then to the right sideline for 13 yards. Brown said Sunday that the coaches could have put the punt block team in a safe formation that would have guarded against the fake (which they would normally do in that situation against a better opponent), but they decided they wanted to give Vasher a return opportunity.


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