2005 Position-By-Position Preview: ST

Special teams play is typically an afterthought among fans and media, who tend to focus on returning starters when eyeing the upcoming season. Special teams was one of the key areas of emphasis for Texas during the latter part of the spring and will be again this month during two-a-days. And for good reason.

"We were not very good, consistently good, at all phases in the kicking game at the end of the year," head coach Mack Brown said, "so we need to be much improved in the kicking game."

How critical are special teams? Take, for example, the 2005 Rose Bowl. The biggest game of not only Texas' 2004 season but also Mack Brown's tenure was decided by special teams play. Dusty Mangum's 38-yard attempt barely cleared the right upright as time expired for that thrilling 38-37 win.

By way of another example, the 2005 Rose Bowl. Texas was at least one touchdown better than Michigan last January 1 and doesn't need a come-from-behind FG on the last play of the game if the Wolverines' average starting field position wasn't their own 45. Specialist Steve Breaston torched the Horns for a Rose Bowl record 221 yards in kick returns.

I've got a horrible premonition (and I hope I'm wrong) that the Ohio State game will come down to special teams play. (Texas has the edge at QB, O-Line and D-Line. The Buckeyes should have the advantage at linebacker, at wide receiver and with the home field. Both teams have two of the top secondaries in the country; both are breaking in new running backs. Special teams shape up as a scale-tipper in a game that won't be decided until the fourth quarter). If you thought Breaston was unstoppable, wait 'til you see Ted Ginn, Jr. of the Buckeyes.

I always thought that Brown's honeymoon ended with the 1999 season-opening loss to North Carolina State when the Wolfpack blocked three punts, including the game-winning return for TD late in the game. I am also convinced that Texas wins the 2002 Oklahoma game if the KO team didn't let Antwone Savage return it 81 yards just before halftime. The Horns led 14-3 and had all the momentum in the world on their sideline after CB Rod Babers returned a Nate Hybl INT 73 yards for the score. But Savage's long return on the ensuing KO set up a 3-yard TD pass to TE Trent Smith with five seconds to go before intermission. Oklahoma never looked back and, three years later, Texas is still looking for answers for its coverage woes.

Texas' KO return defense finished the 2004 season at No. 100 (of 117 Division-I teams) in the final rankings. (That's a more porous return defense than even Baylor and Kansas put on the field.) Brown publicly attributed the breakdown in coverage to late-season injuries. Rather than replacing coverage guys with first-teamers, Brown said, coaches resorted to "backups to the backups." Brown later privately speculated that PK Richmond McGee might have been worn-out and dead-legged by the end of the season. McGee averaged 60.3 yards per kickoff and no touchbacks in the Rose Bowl. All told, 28 of McGee's 75 kickoffs last season went for touchbacks.

This season, new DE coach Oscar Giles has been entrusted with fortifying Texas' kickoff coverage team. Coaches and players are so desirous to put last year's results behind them that new monikers for special team units were introduced last spring. The name of the kick-off coverage team, for example, has been changed from The Stampede to The Wild Bunch.

New RB coach Ken Rucker will be in charge of the kickoff returns, a special teams area with which he has been involved at nearly every program during his coaching career. At Rucker's suggestion, the return team has also undergone a name change (and, presumably with it, a new identity). The group formerly known as Quick Six have now been dubbed House Party.

Both the kickoff and punt return team never fully recovered from Selvin Young's season-ending injury at Arkansas suffered just the second game of the season. By the end of the season, Texas was averaging a pedestrian 19.5 yards-per-return (NCAA No. 69). Young's career averages include 17.5 yards-per-punt-return (ten yards better than last season's team average) and 23.8 yards-per-kickoff-return. CB/PR Aaron Ross filled in but wasn't (relatively speaking) a go-the-distance threat. Speedy freshmen Quan Cosby and Jerrell Wilkerson loom as sudden-impact return specialists who may be counted on early to add some spark to special teams.

Conversely, the punt return defense was solid as the Horns surrendered 6.79 ypr (NCAA No. 17). Senior Richmond McGee and junior Greg Johnson will vie for the punting duties that McGee has held the past two seasons. Johnson was a Freshman All-American at Vanderbilt in 2002 before transferring. Senior David Pino is Mangum's heir apparent but McGee may be looked to on FGs of 40+ yards. Strong-legged true freshman P/K Trevor Gerland is another name to watch on kickoffs. Senior QB Matt Nordgren replaced Tony Jeffery this past spring as the holder on FG attempts.

2004 TEXAS SPECIAL TEAMS RANKINGS

Category.............NCAA Rank.......YPG

Net Punting.............No. 43.........36.7

Punt Returns............No. 85.........7.33

Punt Return Defense..No. 18........6.79

KO Returns..............No. 69........19.5

KO Return Defense ..No. 100.......23.26


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