Inside Texas Blog: The Kicker Conundrum

With an offense expected to be less explosive than last season's, the kicker may become one of the most important players on the field. Inside Texas' Bill Frisbie looks at the players vying for a position that hasn't been the strongest during Mack Brown's tenure.

I've got a gut-feeling that the Texas-Ohio State game will come down to a Greg Johnson FG attempt. Then again, the game-winner could be left in the hands, er, foot of true freshman Hunter Lawrence. Either way, is this a good thing?

Many Horn fans are convinced that place-kicker is the only spot on the Texas roster where the talent has not been upgraded to championship-caliber level that is now generally seen across-the-board on the roster. But that may change this season, and not a moment too soon.

Whether it's a highly touted freshman looking for a breakout season at Texas (Lawrence) or a once-highly touted senior still looking for a breakout season at Texas (Johnson), the Longhorn PK could figure just as prominently in the Won-Loss column in 2006 as did Kris Stockton back in 1998 when he had the final say in a couple games (Oklahoma State, Texas A&M). That's because the offense is expected to be less explosive with a couple of freshman QBs now that You-Know-Who starts training camp with the Tennessee Titans on July 28. Mark it down: at least one Texas game will be determined in 2006 by a FG attempt, or a successful PAT, or perhaps even a late touchback.

Texas missed nine PAT attempts during its national championship season, easily overlooked when you 'hang-50' on every other opponent. (To be fair, three of those came in the home-opener when Richmond McGee was handling all three kicking duties; another missed PAT resulted when Texas, hoping to avoid an official review of a disputed play following its first TD in the Rose Bowl, rushed the kicking team onto the field). Yet, Texas will be involved in a few more down-to-wire affairs this season with freshman QBs and games against Ohio State and Oklahoma, plus road games at Nebraska and Texas Tech. In short, a missed PAT, a Wide Right or Wide Left, will be far more painful in 2006.

To be sure, there have been significant upgrades on special teams during Mack Brown's tenure. A few years ago, he started loading special team units with starters from both sides of the ball. Yet, college football has been slow to notice many of these improvements. The memories of N.C. State blocking three punts in the 1999 season-opener, including the game-winning TD return on the third one, probably did more than anything else to establish the perception that special teams are Brown's Achilles Heel. The more recent memory of Michigan's Steve Breaston setting a new Rose Bowl record with 221 kickoff return yards and giving the Wolverines an average starting field position at their own 45 (primarily because Texas could not buy a touchback) only furthered that perception. The first thing Texas coaches did after returning to Austin that week was to go to Boerne and offer Lawrence a full-ride.

Yet, the special teams glass is more than half-full.

For example, Texas has blocked more kicks (43) since 2000 than any team in the nation. It has been 85 games since an opponent returned a punt for TD (the last one was David Allen's backbreaker in Kansas State's 1999 win in Austin). Texas has scored on six punt returns since Brown's arrival, compared to just two returns for TDs in the eight previous seasons. Aaron Ross' punt return average (14.7) ranked No. 10 nationally last season while late-bloomer Quan Cosby averaged 15.3 yards on nine punt returns. Ramonce Taylor set a new school record in 2005 for KO return average when he was good for 27 return yards on 26 attempts. Taylor and Tarell Brown combined to help Texas rank third nationally (27 ypr) in kickoff returns last season. And it wasn't too long ago that another Brown recruit, Nathan Vasher, set school punt-return records for most yards in a game (173) and in a season (554), in a career (1,314).

But, here, we're specifically talking place-kickers. Stockton and Phil Dawson were John Mackovic recruits, and they hold (or share) virtually all Texas individual FG records. Brown's staff generally does a superlative job in evaluating young talent; so, why has recruiting championship-level PKs been such a crapshoot?

PK is the one spot on the entire playing field that is the most difficult to evaluate, Brown has said.

Folks ask how Texas managed not to snag Austin-area Mason Crosby during the 2003 signing period, who ended up an all-conference PK at Colorado. Texas basically offered his scholarship to Johnson (a Freshman All-American at Vanderbilt seemed like a safer bet than a central Texas kid without a collegiate snap).

Folks also mention Dusty Mangum, who was kind enough not only to kick that game-winner against Michigan but also to contribute to Inside Texas during the 2005 campaign. He was pretty good, wasn't he? I'll share a little anecdote. I mentioned to Richmond McGee last August that the San Antonio Texas-Exes were raising scholarship funds by selling Mangum-autographed footballs. McGee shook his head and laughed.

"People forget what kind of career he had," was McGee's good-natured response.

It's true that any Mangum attempt from 40+ yards (10-of-21) was a virtual coin toss. Yet, he was a combination of cool-headed playfulness who, as a freshman walk-on in 2001, beat a scholarship player and two other walk-ons for the starting assignment. By the time he was done, Mangum set a new school records for most consecutive extra-points made (121 straight from 2001-003) and most in a Longhorn career (208). He connected on all four career attempts from 50+ yards.

But Texas did not recruit Mangum as much as Mangum recruited Texas. He finally contacted family-friend Hardee McCrary, Texas' former DE coach and recruiting coordinator, about becoming the Longhorns' PK. McCrary offered a "try-out" but not a scholarship. The full-ride would not come until Mangum had been on campus for three seasons. Bottom line: Mangum was clutch when it counted most and that's why a football can fetch a $50 price-hike simply because his name is on it.

One of Brown's primary criteria in recruiting a kicker is whether he can effectively and consistently handle at least two of the three kicking chores. (It doesn't matter which two, Brown said, but a kid must be dependable in at least two facets of the kicking game. Scholarship limits are such that Brown does not want to expend to three special teams scholarships: one for punting, one for kickoffs and one for FGs). That's why it's rare when Brown gives a full-ride to a special teams player right out of high school.

Johnson came to Texas on a full-ride after earning Freshman All-American honors at Vanderbilt. He ranked fifth nationally in punting (43.8 ypg) at Vandy, but the senior hasn't had the breakout season at Texas that many expected. RS-freshman Trevor Gerland will challenge for punting duties this fall. The all-state punter averaged 50.3 yards per boot during his senior season at Katy Cinco Ranch. Johnson has not conceded the FG job to Lawrence, but the true freshman will be given every opportunity to win the spot when August camp begins August 7. The two-time all-stater connected on 32-of 44 FG and 63-of-70 PATs during his final two seasons. Seven of his FGs were from 40+ yards while two of his misses were blocks.

Texas has a fine tradition of outstanding placekickers: Dawson, Stockton, Russell Erxleben, Jeff Ward, Raul Allegre, John Goodson, Billy Schott. It's just that it's the only part of the Longhorn tradition that Brown has yet to consistently approximate. But the times, they may be a'changin'. And, ideally, by September 10.

What do you think?

The Unnoticed
Ross Lucksinger - Jul 18, 2006

Each year analysts rank the top high school players in the country and assign them a rating of between one and five stars. While they do an impressive job, there are occasional slip-ups. Clearly with the sheer number of prospects to analyze, they're bound to be incorrect (sometimes very incorrect) with some. Here are the best Longhorns since the 2002 class to receive three or fewer star coming out of high school.

2002 Class

-Lyle Sendlein, DE, Chaparrel HS, Scottsdale Arizona: 3 stars, 57th overall defensive end

The 6'4" Sendlein was the lowest rated out of the five defensive ends in Mack Brown's 2002 class, but he didn't end up at defensive end did he? He switched to the offensive line and last season took over as the starting center. Now, Sendlein is a Rimmington Award candidate (nation's best center) and will be leading one of the strongest offensive lines in all of college football.

-Kasey Studdard, DE, Highlands Ranch HS, Highlands Ranch Colorado: 3 stars, 41st overall defensive end.

Yet another convert from the defensive side of the ball, Studdard was the second lowest ranked DE in the class. Since coming to Texas, he has added over 45 pounds to his frame and has a motor that won't quit. Studdard has also started every single game since he was a sophomore.

-Brian Robison, LB, Splendora HS, Splendora, Texas: 1 star, unranked

Coming out of high school all the indicators were there (380 bench press, 500 squat, 39" vertical, 3.9 GPA) and Robison went largely unnoticed by scouts who considered him "too slow" to play linebacker. Not a problem, just spin him down to defensive end and let him reek havoc. Now Robison is on Hendricks Award watch list (nation's best defensive end) and will team with Tim Crowder to create one of the country's most dangerous rush combos. Ironically, not a single one of the aforementioned five defense ends ever started a game at that position.

An honorable mention goes out to Vince Young. Yes, he was rated the No. 1 overall quarterback and given five stars, but maybe we should have gone outside the box and given him seven or eight…or 114 stars.

2003 Class

-Michael Griffin, CB, Bowie HS, Austin, Texas: 3 stars, 26th overall cornerback

238 tackles, 11 TFL, three sacks, four INTs, 13 pass break-ups, five caused fumbles, five fumble recoveries and a UT record six blocked punts. How many stars was that again?

The most underrated components of this recruiting class were in the defensive backfield. Brandon Foster, Erick Jackson and Michael's brother Marcus Griffin were all a part of this group and rated three stars or lower (Marcus isn't even on the list because he was brought in a preferred walk-on before earning a scholarship). Those three only get honorable mentions because this is the season where we expect big things from them.

2004 Class

-Cedric Dockery, OL, Lakeview Centennial HS, Garland Texas: 3 stars, 46th overall offensive lineman

Against tough competition, it looks like Cedric Dockery will be taking over the starting right guard position of the defending national champion Texas. Pretty good for a player who one scout said didn't "possess the same killer instinct you often see from a man his size" and had the "luxery" of playing next to 6-4, 310 pound top tackle recruit Barry Dillard. (I'd haven't heard a damn thing about Dillard since his senior year at Lakeview Centennial. Nothing.)

-Rashad Bobino, LB, La Marque HS, La Marque, Texas: 2 stars, 96th overall linebacker

He's short. Short people aren't allowed to be ranked very high.

But he had 154 tackles his senior season at La Marque!

Doesn't matter he's short.

But he lead his team to a perfect 16-0 season and a 4A state championship! He squats 635 pounds and runs a 4.6!

Doesn't matter. Short.

-Ramonce Taylor, CB, Belton HS, Belton, Texas: 3 stars, 29th overall cornerback

Taylor's recent troubles…ok, ALL of Taylor's troubles aside, he ended up being one of the most talented players in the 2004 class. Taylor's athleticism was evident by his combine numbers: 4.35 in the forty, 37.1-inch vertical leap, 4.13 shuttle. The numbers that scouts really should have picked up on were his yards in high school. In his junior year at Belton, Taylor had 1,529 yards on 218 carries with seven touchdowns. Impressive, but not eye-popping. What was truly astounding about these numbers were that Belton had just moved up from 4A to 5A and lost all but one starter. Behind an entirely raw line and playing up a division, he put up those numbers. The following season? 2,200 all-purpose yards with 28 touchdowns. Now that's eye-popping.

Boy, did we miss BIG TIME in the '04. This was supposed to be one of the weakest in Mack Browns tenure at UT. The 21-member class averaged at 3 and a third stars a piece…and yet some of the most important players on the current Longhorns squad can be found here. I pulled out Dockery, Taylor and Bobino because they stood out to me the most, but some other notable three-star prospects from this group are Jeremy Campbell, Brian Orakpo and Derek Lokey. Ironically, the three-stars have outperformed the four-stars: Bobby Tatum, George Walker and Jordan Shipley. At least the five star rankings on Frank Okam and Drew Kelson were spot-on.

2005 Class

No players of note. The only three star or less players in this class are punter Trevor Gerland, offensive lineman Chris Hall, running back Jerrell Wilkerson and offensive lineman Charlie Tanner. We'll have to wait and see how these guys pan out.

Naturally I can't definitively name anyone in the '06 and '07 class as "underrated" because they haven't played a game for the Longhorns yet. So instead, here are my predictions as to which 3 star or lower players from the next two recruiting classes will turn into Texas stars.

Predictions for the 2006 Class

-Ben Alexander, DT, T. L. Hanna HS, Anderson, South Carolina: 3 stars, 44th overall defensive tackle

At 5'11" 288, Alexander is considered a little undersized for the position, but what he lacks in size, he makes up for it with intensity, explosiveness and speed. Mack Brown doesn't go out of state unless he's sure on a prospect and Alexander has spectacular potential.

-Robert Joseph, S, Memorial HS, Port Arthur, Texas: 3 stars, 54th overall safety

Joseph has a great understanding of the game of football and takes accurate angles to the ball (one of the most important skills for a safety). When he gets to the ball, he hits like a freight train. Why was he ranked so low? Early in the recruiting process, Joseph ran a disappointing 4.75 40 and was considered too slow to play DB at the next level. However, that was likely just a bad run because recently Joseph ran the 40 again and was clocked 4.54.

Honorable mentions from this class are two-star kicker Hunter Lawrence (since he will probably take over kicking duties as a true freshman) and Wimberley offensive lineman Buck Burnette.

Predictions for the 2007 Class

-Brandon Collins, WR, Brenham HS, Brenham, Texas: 1 star, unranked

Though a little undersized, Collins has reportedly been clocked as low as 4.31 in the 40 and has shown nice hands when catching the football. What I liked most about Collins, though, when watching film of him is his acceleration and ability to change direction. His explosiveness was an issue for high school DBs. They'd take what looked like a good angle on the play, then Collins would hit the afterburners and turn it into a very bad angle. That ability to get a jump on people may be another reason he eventually ends up a cornerback, but wherever it is, he'll make a big impact for the Longhorns.

-Zack Pianalto, TE, Springdale HS, Springdale, Arkansas: 3 stars, unranked

Pianalto has spent most of his time off of the line at the WR position and will have to learn to develop his blocking when he gets to Texas. He's got the frame (a stout 6'4") and once he adds some bulk could be a dangerous threat coming off the line. He'll have to compete for playing time with the two tight ends from the '06 class and the other two tight ends from his own class, but with his sure hands, he'll find the field.

There are actually only two other players in this class rated three stars or less. ratings-wise, this will be one of the most impressive classes in UT history, containing five five-star and 13 four-star prospects.

So there you have it. For the most part, the ratings have been very solid (which is an amazingly difficult thing to do), but there will always be those that slip through the cracks and go unnoticed, until they make the big play and make all of us wonder: where did that guy come from?

What do you think?

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