One of the most underappreciated positions on the football field is special teams. It is rare that special teams players get the same type of press and attention as regular offensive and defensive players, and fans are not exactly rushing out to buy the jersey of a team’s punt protector (unless his name happens to be Tim Tebow). Yet, field position, the kicking game, and kickoff and punt coverage effectiveness can be the difference between a win and a loss. Under assistant coach Kenny Carter, certain areas of Louisville’s special teams has been one of the very effective the past two seasons while other areas left something to be desired. The Cards ranked 1st in punt coverage in the nation last season and were ranked 27th in kickoff return yardage. They also ranked 10th in kickoff return yardage and 18th in punt return yardage in 2010. Areas of concern where fans would like to see improvement are in the punt return game, the punt yardage, and while it was successful last season, the kicking game will be a concern with a new, unproven cast of kickers. Last season, there were moments when special teams plays were crucial in determining the outcome of a game, both good and bad. The dropped punt return by then-freshman Eli Rogers against Pitt was a game-changing moment in a contest that Pitt went on to win. On the positive side of things, the blocked punt by Adrian Bushell against West Virginia in Morgantown that was returned for a touchdown by Andrew Johnson was huge in what ended up as a Cards win. Had that play not happened, who knows what the outcome would have been. The Cards return some key players from last year’s special teams units, but will also debut some new faces in key roles.
Possibly the biggest question mark not just in regards to special teams, but for the team as a whole, is who this year’s kicker will be. Last year’s kicker, Chris Philpott, is now gone, and the current depth chart does not list a definitive starter. It appears the competition will come down to redshirt freshman John Wallace and sophomore Andrew Fletcher. The kicking game has tremendously improved under the new coaching regime. It was a complete disaster previously with three kickers rotating in at different times (including Philpott) as fans bit their nails even on what should have been gimme 30-yard field goals. When the new staff arrived, Philpott established himself as THE guy and began putting kicks into the endzone and hitting some clutch (and deep) field goals. The staff did an outstanding job and hopes to have the same success this year. It is an area of concern for now, though, as the kickers on the roster lack game experience. Wallace likely has the edge, as he reportedly has had a solid spring, despite coming off of an injury, and Carter has spoke highly of him. He has had a little trouble with consistency on his field goals an needs to show improvement there, as Fletcher, along with sophomore Matthew Nakatani, will be breathing down his neck waiting for their turn. Wallace was highly regarded coming out of Central Hardin High School in Cecilia, KY, ranked as the 13th best kicker in the nation by Scout.com, and is known to have a big leg. However, he has yet to see a real game, so it is tough to predict anything. It is definitely an area of concern and one where the lack of experience could hurt us a bit.
The punting game will face the same obstacles to overcome as the kicking game: youth and lack of experience. However, unlike the kicking game that was very successful behind Chris Philpott, the punt game left something to be desired. On paper, the Cards were not exactly terrible in the punt game (nor were they superb), averaging 37.3 yards per punt last year (by comparison, the two national championship contenders last season, Alabama and LSU, averaged 39.3 and 41.3 yards per punt), but those that saw in person or on TV know how inconsistent the punts were last year. The team flip flopped between two punters most of the year, Josh Bleser and Philpott, and both had good games, but also had their issues. Bleser had troubles with distance and hang time, and Philpott would boom a punt for about 50 yards with great hang time on one fourth down, and then shank the next one for about 20 yards. His trouble was consistency. This season, both are gone, and the reigns have been passed on to true freshman Josh Applebee. The 6-3, 230 lb punter from Alabama was ranked as the 16th best kicker/punter in the nation by Scout.com and with great size, has the ability to be a nice safety valve should there be any deep returns. He is largely untested, though, and he will likely make his share of freshman errors. Field position is huge, and the punting game needs to be consistent in giving the defense good field position to work with. Luckily, if there are times when Applebee cannot do that, he will have one hell of a coverage unit to rely on. The punt coverage unit ranked 1st in the nation last season and returns several key members. It will be quite a feat to improve on that, but the unit looks to continue that success into this season.
The return game is an area where fans would like to see improvement, as well, in particular the punt return game. The kick return game was actually not bad, and returners Senorise Perry, Jeremy Wright, Victor Anderson, and Adrian Bushell (who returned the opening kickoff 100 yards against UCONN) all had great returns throughout the season. The punt game, however, was another story. The unit averaged less than 5 yards per return last season and fans witnessed multiple bobbled or muffed returns, including balls bouncing off of facemasks (the ball off of Eli Rogers facemask in the Pittsburgh game was a game changer). Eli Rogers and Scott Radcliff performed the duties last season, and while both are capable of bouncing back, they both had their issues and it seems the staff wants to go in another direction. That direction is likely going to cause a bit of a controversy amongst the fan base. As Brent and I discussed on the show this past Monday, it was recently announced that Charles Gaines and Devante Parker will compete for the starting punt returner spot. Gaines makes sense. He is lightning quick with good hands, and possesses the skills to elude defenders. Parker, on the other hand, is expected to be the Cards home run threat and will be invaluable to the offense this season. Putting him at a position where he risks injury is something that will make fans bite their nails. However, the staff clearly wants players back there who can field punts cleanly and make plays afterword. Parker has arguably the best hands on the team, and good teams like to have playmakers in position where they can make plays. It is not the first time a no. 1 receiver, either, as Harry Douglas did from time to time during his stay at Louisville. Still, though, Parker is going to be a guy that absolutely has to be on the field, and many fans will hope that a guy like Gaines can step up to take the returner spot.
Adrian Bushell was arguably the most valuable special teams player the Cards had last season. He was a dynamic returner and was a threat to block a punt or field goal in every opportunity he had a chance to do so. He blocked two kicks last season and came extremely close on multiple others. He was a guy that was highly visible on special teams and with good reason. One player who would like very much NOT to be visible is long snapper Grant Donovan. If fans do not know who Donovan is and have never heard his name before, that means he is doing his job. Generally, the only time a long snapper’s name is mentioned is if he snaps the ball over a punter’s head. His job is not flashy, but if he screws up, it becomes immediately apparent just how vital his position is. His snaps could be the difference between an opponent starting at their own 10 yard line or on the Cards’ 10 yard line. Here’s to hoping he continues his accurate snaps into this season and we never have to hear his name.
While the offense and defense are on the field the majority time, the value of the special teams units cannot be undervalued. The team thrives in some areas and struggles in others. For the season to be a success, Coach Carter needs to build on where the unit is already effective and drastically work to improve areas of concern. After all, while they may not have the name recognition of the offensive and defensive units, one play on special teams can be crucial in winning or losing a game.