UNC game notes and analysis: special teams

Notes and analysis on the Horns' special teams performance in their 44-14 win over North Carolina:

Where else to start but with sophomore return man Nathan Vasher, the human highlight (and, a couple of times, lowlight) reel. Vasher totaled 153 return yards on the day, breaking the old UT individual punt return record of 131 set by Johnnie Johnson in 1977. Vasher's fourth quarter, 44-yard TD return marked the first time a Longhorn punt returner found the end zone since Mike Adams went 54 yards for six against Syracuse on Sept. 18, 1993. Vasher almost erased Adams from the Last To . . . file earlier in the game, taking a punt 59 yards to the UNC five before stepping out of bounds. Vasher's eight returns went for 14, 59, 1, 31, 5, (-7), 44 and 6 yards (he fair caught two punts and let two others roll dead). Along with putting up six, the sophomore's returns set up the Longhorn offense at its 46, at the UNC five and at the UNC 18. Vasher, though, displayed again the trait I pointed out last week in IT's NMSU game special teams notes and analysis, letting two more punts bounce in front of him. And this week, on one of them, rather than simply allowing the ball to roll to a stop (essentially cutting his losses to just the loss of field position), he tried to make a play by picking it up on the run. That attempt led to disaster when he was unable to scoop up the ball, instead just batting it and allowing the Tar Heels to pounce, recover and set up their offense deep in Texas territory. UNC scored two plays later to tie the game at 14. Later in the game, the punt returner allowed another low punt to hit in front of him, probably losing at least 15 yards in field position for the offense. Vasher also fielded a punt on the fly inside the 10, catching the ball at the six and returning it to the 11. On another return attempt, Vasher misjudged Carolina punter John Lafferty's booming third quarter with-the-wind punt, forcing the Longhorn return man to reach over his head to try to haul it in, which he could not do, luckily leading only to a negative return rather than another turnover. The guy, though, is by far the most exciting punt returner on the Forty Acres since Adams (and could be the best in the Big 12 since Longhorn-killer David Allen at K-State), and the bet here is that we'll see more performances similar to Saturday's from the sophomore, meaning both sidelines will be holding their breath when Vasher lines up in deep return. With his success, teams may begin to kick away from him, but as Allen showed, the great ones can find a way to get to the ball and get it into the end zone. And Vasher may be a great one.

On Vasher's 59-yard first quarter return, UT almost blocked the punt, but aside from that play, the Horns didn't get close to any others. The return team set up the return rather than going for the block on the majority of UNC's 12 punts. Vasher's speed and shiftiness account for some of his return success, but also credit the Texas return/block team, coached by Duane Akina, for giving Vasher room to run. Walk-on Richard Hightower, with a crushing block of UNC's Doug Brown, deserves a piece of the acclaim for setting Vasher free on his TD return. Brown probably doesn't remember it, but he's gonna cringe when he sees the play on film. Rod Babers also made an important block on the TD return that allowed Vasher to get to the sideline, where he turned it up and on and took it to the house.

Dusty Mangum belongs on the special teams all-star list along with Vasher after nailing all three of his field goal attempts, from 36, 49 and 51 yards. The 36-yarder gave the Horns the lead after the Heels tied the game in the second quarter and his 49-yarder right before the half into a pretty stiff southerly breeze gave the Horns a boost heading into the locker room. He boomed a 51-yarder true on the second play of the fourth quarter that, with the game still in doubt, pushed the Texas lead past two TDs to 29-14. Mangum has made all five of his field goal attempts and all eight of his extra point attempts this fall.

Newcomer Dan Smith held on to the kickoff duties after performing well last week. He sent the opening kickoff into the end zone for a touchback, and followed that with kicks to the goalline (called back because of a penalty), to the one (from the 30) and to the goalline with a strong tailwind in the first quarter. Into the wind in the second quarter, Smith kicked to the 12. After the break and against the wind, the junior walk-on hit his only attempt to the 10. With the wind again in the fourth, Smith sent the ball to the goalline and then into the end zone for touchbacks on his final two kicks. The kickoff coverage team continues to do an outstanding job, allowing returns of 22, 23,18, 7, and 5 yards, an average of just 15 yards per return. On the five-yard return, the coverage team literally surrounded the UNC return man with six Orange jerseys, including Brett Robin, Beau Trahan, Michael Ungar and Reed Boyd, who was credited with the tackle. Texas scored on the next play when Maurice Gordon sacked Tar Heels' QB Ronald Curry in the end zone for a safety. Give the coverage team an assist on that one.

Brian Bradford had his best day (statistically) punting the ball Saturday, averaging 41.3 yards with a net of 36 on his nine punts. The Heels only returned two of Bradford's punts, one for three yards and the other for 15 (and 10 yards of that return was wiped out by a UNC penalty). The juco transfer also put three punts inside the 20 yardline and sent three into the end zone for touchbacks. Still a bit of work to do, but a far better performance this week than last.

And, finally, Victor Ike. The junior only had a couple of kickoff return opportunities, but he still totaled 68 yards in returns, including a 43-yarder after the Heels' first TD. Ivan Williams remained Ike's return partner, but the thought of Ike and Vasher back there is a tantalizing one. Perhaps in Houston. Regardless, the Texas special teams have transformed from a game-losing liability into a team strength, and the coaching staff deserves a lot of credit for turning things around.

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