Can Special Teams Be Special In 2004?

No one is asking head coach <B>Mack Brown </B>about his special teams this year. And that is a good thing.

There were legitimate concerns early last season about the effectiveness of Longhorn punting and, to some extent, kick-offs. Those questions, relatively speaking, have been addressed. Well, okay, there's one small question and that has to do with former CB Nathan Vasher's replacement as punt returner.

Junior RB Selvin Young is expected to balance both punt return and KO return duties this fall, after handling the latter last year. Ordinarily, Brown doesn't like to have the same guy responsible for both chores because a) fatigue becomes a factor, especially if the guy is also your backup RB and b) the risk that a single injury would eliminate your starter at two spots.

But now that Young has recovered from the groin injury (suffered last September 20 at Rice), he should be back to his explosive self that saw him reel off a 97-yard KO return for TD -- as well as a 39-yard PR for TD -- in the 2003 home opener against New Mexico State. That put Young in the school record book for single-game TD returns and in Brown's good graces as the players report Monday for pre-season camp. As long as RB Cedric Benson stays healthy, Young won't log significant snaps at RB but he has what it takes to turn the tide in a close ballgame with a timely return.

Young should return KOs alongside sophomore RCB Tarell Brown. Recruited as a USA-Today All-American, Brown saw action in all 13 games as a true freshman as one of the primary backups in the secondary and on special teams. Young has a more-than-capable backup in sophomore Aaron Ross (on both punt return and KO returns), but you know how Brown values experienced hands on the field.

The other question is whether junior David Pino will nudge senior Dusty Mangum at placekicker. Pino served as Mangum's primary backup on FGs and PATs the past three seasons, but went 3-for-3 in FGs the last two games of the season when Mangum was sidelined with a leg injury. If Mangum is 100 percent, then he hangs on to the job that he's held since his freshman campaign. Otherwise, there's not a whole heckuva lot that separates the two.

Both are above average, but you don't breathe as easy with either of these two if the game is on the line as you once did with, say, Kris Stockton, Phil Dawson or Jeff Ward. Mangum has been true on 39-of-58 FG attempts but, beyond the 40-yard line, it's been pretty much of a coin toss (8-of-17 in three seasons). He did, however, nail a 50-yarder against Colorado and a personal best 51-yarder against North Carolina as a freshman.

If it weren't for PATs, Mangum would have been the loneliest kicker in America last year. A quick-strike Texas offense settled for just 12 FG attempts in 13 games. He connected on 7-of-9 FGs and nailed 50-of-51 PATs in 2003. Mangum holds the school record with 121 consecutive PATs, set in 2001-03. Pino's career-long FG was a 39-yarder against Washington State in the Ho-Hum Bowl last December. His first collegiate FG went for 20 yards against Texas A&M. He has also kicked-off five times, recording two touchbacks.

This was the year that many expected Vanderbilt transfer Greg Johnson to rescue what was once an erratic punting game, but junior Richmond McGee held off the former freshman All-American with a strong finish in 2003 and stronger spring season. Brown rarely awards scholarships to special teams players unless a kid "do it all" (punt, place-kick, handle FGs). Johnson is on scholarship. As a true freshman at Vanderbilt, he ranked fifth nationally with his 44-yard average and nailed at least one 50-yard boot in 11 of 12 games. He connected on 8-of-13 FG attempts and made all 27 of his PATs. Johnson sat out last season to regain his eligibility after transferring and now has three years at Texas.

Thing is, McGee was the feel-good story of the spring (that is, unless you are Johnson). The shaky punter that helped get the Arkansas game off on the wrong foot (a pair of punt attempts that traveled less than 17 yards) settled down significantly and averaged 41 yards on 46 punts. He actually came back in that Arkansas game with a career-long 58-yard punt that he matched three weeks later against Kansas State. Some of his punts last spring were breathtaking (he put so much height on a few of his boomers that they likely showed up on the radar screen at Bergstrom International Airport). Thirty-seven of his 88 KOs went for touchbacks, as McGee shaved nearly five yards off the average starting possession of an opponent (21.4 in 2003 after 26.3 in 2002).

The first practice of the 2004 season has been rescheduled for 6:00 p.m. Tuesday at Denius Field. The session is open to the public.

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