Kicking Game Could Decide Huskies' Fate

No matter how hard you try to stress it, the kicking game never really gets as much respect as does the other two phases of the game of football. Think about it. Sometimes kickers, punters, snappers, holders and returners all play important parts in the ultimate outcome of games.

But often times it's the worst plays: bad snaps, bobbled snaps, dropped or bobbled kicks, blocked kicks, missed PAT's, missed kicks period, much less returns ran down your throat.

Some even end up in a score, but not for your team. The kicking game can kill you or it can be the deciding factor in winning.

There are really only six phases of the kicking game, but each phase is further broken down. All phases have to be addressed in practice regardless of how many times you use them in a game. For example, when kicking off there are directional deep right or deep left kicks, deep middle kicks, bunt onsides kicks, bloop onsides kicks, regular bloop kicks, kickoff after safety, kickoff after penalty, squib kicks: not to mention kicking away from a dangerous returner. You have to find the time to cover all parts, much less working on staying in your lanes and playing off blocks.

Devoting enough meeting and practice time to each phase is the trick but having the right people doing them is just as critical.

Basically there is the kickoff and conversely the kickoff return, the punt and the punt block/return and the field goal/PAT and the PAT/FG block, plus all the fakes for each phase. If you do five or six of each per game, that amounts to about 30-35 kicking snaps per game. Getting the right numbers of kids on the field in each of those situations is a problem in itself, much less doing so with a positive outcome.

Being the Kicking Game Coordinator is rarely thought of in the same conversation with an offensive coordinator or defensive coordinator. It's kind of like the recruiting coordinator in the hierarchy of the coaching ranks. Someone has to do it and therefore someone has to take the blame if something goes wrong.

Ever hear of a head coach getting fired for his kicking game? No way. It doesn't work that way. The special teams coach gets fired. Regardless, when disaster strikes in the kicking game it can effect momentum a lot more than a regular play. It can literally lift a team to victory. Conversely, if something in the kicking game goes against you, it is as deflating as anything in the game of football.

Then it becomes really important! At the NFL level, they simply fire specialists on the spot. Get a new snapper or a new kicker if they screw up. whatever, get rid of them. At the college level, you can't do that. You have to play who you have. Play the experienced kid who has the confidence to perform under pressure.

Brian White is the new Husky Assistant Coach in charge of Special Teams. He is bright, full of energy, wears shorts when it is freezing, and has the responsibility of directing and coordinating the kicking game and all its phases. He also coaches the tight ends and has immediately improved his two main players, Michael Gottlieb and Chris Izbicki, in just one spring. He will have arguably the biggest recruit of this years' class when Kavario Middleton arrives this summer.

Years ago, under Coach James, we all had separate areas of kicking responsibility. One year I worked with the punters, another year I had the punt block/return, and yet another time I was in charge of PAT/FG block. All of us were involved in one way or another. Nowadays all the coaches have supporting roles and an observation role on every kick play. All teach the fundamentals but Coach White is in charge of putting it all together. Luckily White has, at one time or another, been in charge of every part of the kicking game. He has also been an Offensive Coordinator.

Coach White actually graduated from Harvard, then started coaching at Fordham before joining Lou Holtz at Notre Dame to help win a national title in 1988. He got on full time with Nevada-Reno and stayed there until he joined Barry Alvarez at Wisconsin, and eventually ended up as the offensive coordinator for the Badgers. They went to nine bowl games while he was there, including a couple of Rose Bowls, and Coach White was named the National Assistant Coach of the Year in 2004 by the AFCA (American Football Coaches Association). The guy is a ball coach, he knows the game and he knows kids. His energy will be felt on the sidelines.

Now the only part I don't understand is why do you go to Harvard to end up coaching football? Somehow, to me, those two don't seem to go together. Regardless, Brian is responsible for adding some fire to the kicking game. Just this spring I noticed different drills and techniques for teaching the game and the kicking periods seem to be covering many parts all at the same time.

Most of the kicking emphasis this spring was placed on the team aspects of protection and coverage. Getting and maintaining your coverage lanes, reading and playing off blocks, coming under control, and open field tackling are not that easy to teach but are all required in coverage. Proper steps, body position and bracing, blocking the right man or right area, and the correct use of hands and eyes are required in protection. These are fundamentals and they were stressed throughout the spring. It is important to remember; you don't need to win with protection or coverage, you just can't let it beat you.

Protection and timing are the two most important considerations for getting the ball off. The timing aspect is almost entirely within your kicking battery. How fast is the snap? How quickly can the punter get the ball off? And how high and how long can the punter keep the ball up in the air? These skills can be measured and are done so on a daily basis.

For example, on the snap for a punt from the snapper to the punter you are looking for .8 of a second, and you want the punter to get rid of the ball in 1.3 seconds for a total of 2.1 or better. Then you want the punter to hang the ball up for at least 4.5-5 seconds to allow your coverage to be there when the ball is caught. On PAT/FG attempts you are looking for a 1.3 second total of snap to kick. Anything over that and you have a recipe for disaster. That is precisely why opponents time your snapper during warm-ups.

It would be surprising for me not to see snapper Danny Morovick handling all the snaps and Jared Ballman doing all the punts and kickoffs. (He can also kick field goals.) Both re really good at what they do and have the experience, which can't be taken for granted. They know the timing, they understand how wind can play a factor in Husky Stadium, and they can perform in all conditions. They will both have solid years and Ballman, I think, will be one of the best players on the team at his position. If I am right, the Huskies will be a much better team simply because the punting game is the key to field position football, and that is precisely what the Huskies are into.

Last year's field goal kicker, Ryan Perkins, struggled this spring and was somewhat inconsistent so he could easily be challenged by red-shirt freshman Erik Folk. Folk has a really strong leg and Perkins is simply all about guts. He is kicking with a broken wing and has been following two surgeries on his kicking leg. Ryan is an inspiration to his team and has been solid on PAT's. Folk will challenge but I wouldn't be surprised to see both of them kicking. Folk could also give Ballman a run for kickoffs because he hangs the ball up high and has good direction.

It appears that backup quarterback Ronnie Fouch will probably be the holder. This is always a positive as Fouch could either run or throw from the holder spot in fake situations. Competition is always good for putting pressure on your specialists and there are some excellent young walk-ons, like punter Kiel Rasp and kicker Cory Rutkowski, who will only make the starters better. In fact, Rutkowski had the only made field goal in the Spring Game. Still, it is unlikely any of these kids will beat out the returners.

There was also lots of speed being inserted into special units this spring and I wouldn't be surprised to see many defensive starters used throughout the kicking game. For example, with the apparent depth at linebacker and safety, I would expect fans to see as many as 8-10 linebackers and as many as 5-6 safeties playing all over the field. Linebackers Chris Stevens, Trenton Tuiasosopo, Josh Gage, T.J. Poe and Matt Houston are all veterans who might not start but they will be all over the kicking game. Most of the time a starter can help you on one or the other of the two running parts of the kicking game and not fatigue the player. Covering both kickoffs and punts besides playing every scrimmage down is a tough job to balance in terms of going all out.

Coach White inherited specialists with lots of experience but has kept it competitive and expects it to stay that way right through fall camp. He is hoping the competition results in improved performances come fall.

His major concern now is the punt and kickoff returners. Last year Anthony Russo really emerged as a punt returner and that probably helped him get on, albeit briefly, with the Seattle Seahawks. The punt returner position as well as the kickoff returner spots are still wide open and probably won't be decided until August. One thing you can expect to see is speed. D'Andre Goodwin, who established himself as one of the top receivers in camp during spring, appears to be a candidate to replace Russo on punts but they tried a number of other kids back there as well. Speedsters Curtis Shaw and Chris Polk were used on kickoff returns and obviously they will take a look at a number of the new kids when they report in August. The other Polk, Jordan - who won the Oregon 100 and 200-meter dashes - would seem to be an obvious candidate, as well as speedster Adam Long, one of the top sprinters in California. In a return specialist, instant speed or quickness is what you're looking for, besides good hands.

On punts, the returner really only has enough time for one move before cutting upfield because the coverage is on him as soon as the ball is. Dancing doesn't get it done. Returning kickoffs is not quite as pressure-packed as it is a little slower developing. Regardless, dropped balls can hurt you on either and sometimes it can be devastating like it was against Ohio State when a close game was blown wide open by back to back scores caused by a fumble on the kickoff return. USC was another game where a muffed catch on a punt return proved to be devastating.

After visiting with Coach White I really believe he will be taking a more aggressive approach than we have seen over the past 6-8 years. I believe the Huskies will try to block some kicks rather than always playing safe. I don't know the numbers for sure, but I know Washington has had way more kicks blocked against them then they have blocked themselves of late. I know the Huskies are trying real hard to make their punt blocks and their punt returns to look exactly the same. The speed factor plays in here as you always have to be able to bring edge speed in kicking situations.

The Huskies broke open their only Apple Cup victory in the last five years by blocking a punt and returning a kick. They won a game against Fresno State by blocking a PAT. Otherwise most of the blocks were at the Huskies' expense. Wouldn't a blocked punt for a touchdown against the Oregon Ducks be a great way to jump start the season? Remember, a blocked field goal returned for a touchdown helped Washington beat Michigan not so long ago.

The kicking game is often the X-factor in football, and Coach White is trying hard to make it the winning factor. He is looking for kids with that same commitment to make a difference. He will be attacking protection schemes and trying to bring the excitement to a phase of the game that is often taken for granted. I know my fellow Husky Honks - especially Softy - think I'm crazy because I'm always mentioning the kicking game when it comes to keys to winning games. It is tough to always "win" the kicking game but if you're solid in protection and coverage then at least you don't "lose" in this phase. That is the key: be aggressive but be safe. Go to the block point, not the kicker. Disguise what you're doing, and most importantly find kids who are totally committed.

Of course finding another Joe Jarzynka or Beno Bryant would also be great.


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