Sorensen: What to do with Coug special teams?

ASIDE FROM PAC-10 commissioner Tom Hansen's ineptitude, a debilitating series of injuries on the defensive line and a shocking Apple Cup setback, the Cougs are staying home this holiday season because of breakdowns in a handful of specific areas. Not surprisingly, the bulk of the badinage is found on special teams. Fair warning to the faint of heart: These numbers put a capital U in the word ugly.

To say the Cougars had problems with their special teams is akin to saying Matt Hasselbeck has issues growing hair. Indeed, for those who thought the Cougs had special teams woes in 2005, this past season was a whole new world.

And a glance at Pac-10 statistics proves it. The way these listings read, you'd think WSU, not Cal, was the school right across the bay from lowly Stanford. The Cougs and Card, you see, are pretty much connected at the hip when it comes to the conference's various measurements of special teams performance.

Punt returns?

Despite one of the most dangerous talents around in Michael Bumpus, the Cougars finished No. 10 at 5.5 yards per return. That's a 50 percent decline from 2005 -- not to mention a half-yard less than Stanford and a full yard behind Washington.

Kickoff returns?

The Cougs edged out Stanford on this one to claim No. 9 at 17.5 yards per return -- nearly two yards less per return than in 2005, and six- to eight-yards less than each of the top four teams in the conference.

Kickoff coverage?

Whether you measure it in touchbacks or net average (length of kickoff minus length of opponent's return), the Cougars were No. 9, Stanford No. 10.

Punt coverage?

Actually, the news here wasn't all bad -- in part because the stats don't single out blocks, botches, failed fakes or big returns. The Cougars were in the middle of the Pac in gross punting yards (Darryl Blunt averaged a solid 41.4 yards per boot) and net punting yards (punt length minus return length), 34.5. But the fact of the matter is that the Cougs' punt coverage unit had more fans holding their-breath than eating popcorn.

Field goal accuracy?

The Cougars were No. 9, connecting on 62.5 percent of their trey attempts, followed by Stanford at 59 percent. By way of comparison, consider that the three best-performing schools in this category were all at 83 percent or better. The same story played out with accuracy on extra points, as the Cougars and Card brought up the rear, making 94 percent or less, while most of the rest of the league was at 100 percent.

OK, I THINK I'VE MADE THE point: The Cougars' play on special teams was horrible this season. So, what to do about it?

The option vocalized by a number of fans -- reassigning special teams coaching duties -– isn't all that illuminating, in my opinion. Those chores currently reside with talented running backs coach Kelly Skipper. He's been a college coach since 1989, and everywhere along the way he's had a hand in special teams. Moreover, a year ago he presided over a group that was among the nation's best in net punting, punt returns and punt defense. Two years before that, when the Cougars won 10 games, I don't recall anybody quibbling with the work of Sammy Moore, Drew Dunning, Kyle Basler or other special teamers.

For me, a coaching change isn't the answer.

Another obvious place to look for solutions is on the practice field -- as in, spend more time working on special teams. But talk with coaches and veteran players and you'll find that the Cougs spent more time on special teams this season than in any other of recent vintage. And I can guarantee you Bill Doba sits in on every special teams meeting, which means there's no shortage of commitment from the highest level.

So, what needs to happen?

The program with the most challenging geographic placement in the Pac-10 -- plus the most tightfisted fans in the Pac-10 and Big Ten combined -- must recruit a few more athletes.

I'm not kidding. It's a simple answer -- compounded, of course, by the fact you just don't pluck Pac-10 caliber athletes off trees.

Here's an easy place to start: placekicking. Loren Langley, sadly, hasn't worked out. On the bright side, his late-season replacement -- walk on junior Romeen Abdollmohammadi -- was solid down the stretch. That's encouraging. And it reinforces my long-held opinion that no team should waste a slot in a recruiting class on a placekicker (or punter). The likes of Dunning, Rian Lindell, Jason Hanson, Tony Truant, Aaron Price, John Traut, Mike DeSanto, Paul Watson and Don Sweet all came to the Cougs as walk ons.

If you go with a walk on kicker -- which three decades of Cougar history tell us will get you more production than a scholarship kicker -- you open a recruiting spot for a real athlete.

Now why is that critical?

Well, look at the Apple Cup two weeks ago. If the Cougs hadn't used scholies in recent years on Langley and Graham Siderius (though I must admit Siderius was a great tackler), they could have had two more outside linebacker/safety types on the roster.

The point, you ask?

Take a look at the tape of the Apple Cup and the Huskies' big kickoff return that set up a TD. By my count, there were three, maybe four, WSU kickoff team regulars who weren't on the field when Marlon Wood almost went the distance. They weren't on the field because they also play on defense and were too gassed to come back out after running downfield with Eric Frampton on his scoring interception. That's especially notable when you consider that two of the Cougars' best special teams head hunters -- Courtney Williams and Michael Willis -- already were out of action with injuries suffered earlier in the season.

At any rate, if you look at Wood's flight path on the Husky return, the Cougar breakdown occurred approximately where the new faces were positioned.

That's harmonic convergence of the worst kind.

If you've got greater depth –- by that I specifically mean speed and strength -- coming out of your corps of linebackers or defensive backs, maybe there's no opportunity for Wood to exploit. That may sound like a stretch, but this truly is a game where the difference between the outhouse and penthouse ain't all that far.

The answer to the Cougars' special teams woes is a getting a few more athletic kids in the program. Look at the huge contributions people like Jason Hill, Erik Coleman, Jeremy Bohannon, Collin Henderson and Steve Gleason made on special teams when they were new to the Palouse. None of them was heavily recruited, but each was a difference maker on special teams at an early age. In a game of inches, those differences on the margins aren't always obvious, but they're often what separates memorable from forgettable.

Look at Andy Mattingly, the true freshman from Spokane. He's strong and fast, and someday is going to be an amazing linebacker. This year he was a standout on special teams. Add a couple of more athletes like him to the roster and I guarantee you we wouldn't be having this discussion today -- no matter how errant Langley's leg.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Paul Sorensen played safety for the Cougars from 1980-81, earning first-team All-American honors as a senior. He later played in the NFL and USFL. From 1985-98 he was the color commentator on radio broadcasts of Cougar football. Also a long-time assistant coach in the Greater Spokane League, he's been writing periodically for CF.C since 1999.


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