Making Wazzu's special teams, special again

DAVE UNGERER HAS hit the ground running as WSU's special teams/running backs coach, arriving in Pullman a few short weeks ago. He's had to, with two major ST spring goals he wants to accomplish and but 15 days to do it. CF.C talks at length to the man with a quarter century-plus special teams coaching experience -- how the Cougars are progressing, early standouts, his philosophies plus much more.

Ungerer is a New Jerseyian by birth, but a true football nomad by trade. He has coached at Alabama, Maryland, Oregon State, California and places betwixt and between. He's coached a variety of positions over his career but special teams has been his constant, and it's where he's made his mark. Based on the special teams results in Pullman over the past 5-6 years, he's got some serious magic to work on the Palouse right now.

One of the first things Ungerer did after arriving at WSU was to talk with the players about his special teams plan and philosophies. The Cougs have the second half of spring ball and the whole of fall camp to get the special teams tightened up and ready for '10. But Ungerer says he's already well into planning and preparation work for the opener at Oklahoma State, and the rest of the WSU schedule.

"With my background and experience, I know what I want to do. I know it works. And it's been successful everywhere I've been," said Ungerer.

Dave Ungerer on special teams standouts halfway through spring, team speed, punt gunners and much more

This isn't a comprehensive list by any means, and Ungerer stresses that point, but among those who have turned the coach's head midway through spring ball, they include Chantz Staden, Andre Barrington, Alex Hoffman-Ellis, Tyree Toomer, Arthur Burns, Casey Locker, Myron Beck and Sekope Kaufusi.

"Staden I think is a guy for you keep your eye on, and in a few different roles on our special teams," said Ungerer. "Barrington, I think will be one because of his speed. Hoffman-Ellis is going to be a good special teams guy for us, he's big and strong. Toomer has really good speed and Burns is another guy to watch. And then you've got guys like Locker, who is a real blue-collar, fighter type of guy who I also think will have a significant role.

"Beck is a another guy and the other young kid I really like, a big kid who can really run, is Kaufusi. He's got that body type and can run. And there's a ton more, and we're nowhere near being done. We're still in the evaluation stages, and there will be some freshmen who come in this fall who can also potentially have an impact."

"I really feel good about the pool of guys we have. I think there is enough speed for us to be good in the coverage game. Schematically, I hope that will also help us cut those guys loose.

"It's one thing if a guy runs 4.5 or 4.6, but does he play at 4.5 or 4.6? It's about getting them to play fast. And then if a guy runs a 4.6, he should be running a 4.4 on kickoff return, because he has a running start. Hopefully by giving them the tools we're giving them, and teaching them some things and they way that we're teaching them, not only will they run at the speed they're capable of but in some cases, they'll run faster based on some things we're emphasizing. Getting them to understand that, getting them to play fast and getting them to make good decisions at full speed, it's part of the process and helping these guys grow and become good special teams players."

"You have to be able to get off the jam, the vice at the line. So you have to have good mobility in a small area. From there you need to have some acceleration to get away from the guy who's hounding you all the way down the field. And then, you just have to have that great desire to make a play. You have want to defeat a one-on-one and sometimes a two-on-one."

"We have to make a huge improvement this year -- in our coverage units to help the defense, and in our return units to try and help the offense, so they don't have to drive the ball so far. We've put a lot of time into kickoff return this spring so far because of that. And I think we can help the offense so they don't have to drive as far, so they don't have to get as many first downs before they score. Tuesday, we did some full team stuff (on kick return) for the first time. And we looked pretty good for the first day of that."

WSU HAS BEEN downright awful on special teams the past two seasons, and decidedly un-special going back to 2004. That's a big reason why Paul Wulff brought in Ungerer, who previously built successful special team units at Oregon State, Alabama, Cal and elsewhere.

Wulff also bit the bullet last year so that WSU could realize greater benefits over the long haul -- redshirting in '09 players with a good deal of speed. Those redshirt frosh are now ready to contribute on the field this year.

"I had two major goals this spring -- to evaluate the players, to find out what everyone's strengths and weaknesses are and who fits best and where," said Ungerer. "And, as I've told the players, to try and find the right pieces to the puzzle. The other aspect is to get (established) in our base for each unit -- our kickoff, kickoff return, punt, punt return, field goal, field goal block.

"We've tried to do a little of (accomplishing) both through seven days -- and it's a pretty big task to try and combine those both, and accomplish all we want to, in just 15 days. But I think it's actually gone really well, the kids are responding extremely well and they're working extremely hard."

UNGERER HAS NO illusions on how the Cougars, still a very young team, need to perform special teams-wise in 2010.

"We need to make a big jump, statistically," said Ungerer. "If you look at kickoff coverage, yards per return, drive start, punt return coverage, net punt... we've got to improve there and help the defense. And they all know that, we've talked about it in our meetings. And we have to give them tools to be successful and have confidence."

UNGERER, WHO RETURNED both punts and kickoffs as a collegian, has been coaching special teams for more than 25 years. He says Wulff has given him this spring; "thankfully, plenty of time each day, in segments and practice, to work on things. And we're making progress."

Without giving away any state secrets, Ungerer said one of his primary objectives has been to instill confidence and to teach 'em up.

"I want to give them a lot of tools in their tool bag to be successful on Saturday, whether in coverage units or in the return game," said Ungerer. "They've been very receptive to that, extremely attentive in meetings and on the field we've gotten good work done. We've gotten a good bit of our base stuff in.

"I'm feeling pretty good about where we're at after seven practices."

PART OF UNGERER'S PHILOSOPHY is this: the punt team is the "Cadillac", where you use best players, whether they're position starters or not. Beyond that, he wants to limit the position starters to no more than one additional special teams unit.

"If you have decent depth, you should be able to fill up the rest of your special teams with your backup and (up-and-coming) guys. And I've had a lot of success with guys who are walk-on guys. Talk to the guys in our meetings, they'll tell you I talk a lot about 'want to'. A lot of special teams is overachievers, guys with huge hearts and desire.

"Some of the best guys I've had have been walk-ons, guys who have been 'a step slow' or considered 'too small', or guys you might never expect would be standouts...We're definitely not going to have a starter on four special teams. If he plays two, great. And most guys who have aspirations for the NFL, that's one of the first things the NFL will ask you -- does he play special teams?" said Ungerer.

Ungerer, at Oregon State in 2007-08, coached the top-performing kickoff coverage units in the Pac-10 both seasons. The previous four seasons he was the special teams and tight ends coach at Alabama, where he served with current WSU assistant head coach Chris Ball. The Crimson Tide special teams excelled during his tenure, blocking 13 kicks and returning five punts and two kickoffs for scores. Before that he spent one season as the special teams and tight ends coach at Cal. In his lone season in Berkely, Cal's kickoff return team ranked third in the nation and tops in the Pac-10.

The Ungerer File
Washington State, 2010- (Special Teams/RB)
Elon, 2009 (Special Teams)
Oregon State, 2007-2008 (Special Teams)
Alabama, 2003-2006 (Special Teams/TE)
California, 2002 (Special Teams/TE)
Lehigh, 2000-01 (Special Teams/RB)
Maryland, 1992-98 (Special Teams)
Holy Cross, 1988-91 (Special Teams)
Davidson, 1986-87 (Special Teams)
Northeastern, 1985 (Special Teams/DL)
Rutgers, 1983-84 (Graduate Assistant)

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