ATX Longhorn Sports 2013
Football Talk

From the stands: A look at Longhorn spring practice and the special teams

From the stands: A look at Longhorn spring practice and the special teams

Austin Photo Set: News_kevin_UT football schedule_feb 2012_longhorns
This week, we look ahead to the 2013 special teams. Photo courtesy of Texas Longhorns

Thoughts:

  • Texas swept Nebraska over the weekend, dropping the Huskers to 0-7 on the season. The Horns, now 6-2 (lost to Sam Houston on Tuesday) and head to No. 14 Stanford this weekend for three with the Cardinal. Game one is Friday night at 7:30 p.m., Austin time.
  • Texas softball won their own tournament last weekend, dropping one game along the way. The Connie Clarks are 16-1 and ranked No. 6 and head to Kissimmee, Florida this weekend for the Citrus Classic. Game one is against No. 18 Louisville Friday morning at 10 a.m.
  • 10 a.m? On a Friday? What?
  • Kristin Chenoweth is a human Barbie doll. I mean like the same size as a regular Barbie doll, but human. A human Barbie doll that talks trash about Texas/ou.
  • Kristin Chenoweth, Toby Keith, Olivia Munn, Kings of Leon... I don’t need to hear anything ou-related from any of you. In fact, I don’t need to hear anything at all from any of you.
  • Marquise Goodwin ran a 4.27 at the NFL Combine in the 40-yard dash. It’s the second fastest time ever (Chris Johnson ran a 4.25). I’ve seen many people saying that it doesn’t mean that much in terms of football ability. That’s true I suppose, but it opens eyes and doors for teams to see football ability, because you can teach a player just about anything, but you can’t teach size and you can’t teach speed.
  • Kenny Vaccaro did nothing to drop him out of the first round with his 4.59 time.

This week we take a look at phase two of our spring practice breakdown: The special teams.

Spring practice 2013: The special teams

You know I am a HUGE special teams guy. They are as important as offense and defense and, usually, a special teams play will decide the outcome of a game. Coaches always talk about it in press conferences being important, but I think most fans hear that and think "coach speak." It isn’t coach speak. It is as critical to success and failure as anything else on the field.

Texas lost one of the best punters in the nation in senior Alex King, as well as kickoff returner extraordinaire DJ Monroe and his main backup Marquise Goodwin. There is work to be done in all phases, but key pieces return in other spots. Let’s dive in.

In order to be the best, you must lose your mind

That’s from a silly movie from the '90s called Ski School. Anyone seen it? Anyway, it’s your typical spring break-esque movie with all the typical spring break-esque antics, but that line has always stuck with me: In order to be the best you must lose your mind. That should be the tag for every special teams coach in the country.

Covering kicks and blocking for returners isn’t sexy. It’s extra work during practice for everyone that isn’t a kicker and usually the rest of the team gets a break while special teams is going on. Guys on special teams are the first ones out to practice, the first ones out to games and, as I said, it’s almost always additional work for everyone. For a guy to want to be out there on special teams he must be out of his mind. And that’s what you need: guys who are out of their minds.

It’s a job for the hungry and the crazy: young guys who want to get on the field and make an impact immediately, older guys that love the contact and the rush. Texas will spend spring practice finding those guys, the hungry and the crazy, that will sacrifice their own safety to make the special teams units elite. Oh, and a punter. And a kicker. Who will those guys be? Who will lose their mind? WHO WANTS TO MAKE FIELD GOALS? Let’s take a look as we hit the special teams, unit by unit.

Points team

I don’t differentiate between “field goal” and “extra point” team. It’s the same guys and the goal is to kick for points, hence the name “points team.”

I said last year going into the season that if Anthony Fera was healthy, Texas would be fine at kicker. If he wasn’t, it scared me to death. He wasn’t healthy and Texas was 11-19 on field goals and missed three extra points. When Fera got healthy, there were still misses (only two). Texas was incredibly inconsistent kicking field goals last year and it cost them against West Virginia and opened the floodgates against Kansas State. It has to get better.

The good news is Anthony Fera and Nick Jordan are back. Points Nick (as opposed to Nick Rose, who is the kickoff specialist, aka Kickoff Nick) took over late in the year and was much better, but I think a healthy Anthony Fera returns to his Penn State form if Texas wants him to (more on that in a minute). I think the plan will be for Fera and Points Nick to share duties this spring and see if someone gets hot or consistent or both. I expect that will be Fera, but look for both to kick. WHOEVER it is needs to be more consistent or Texas will be in similar situations next year.

Also returning are deep snapper Nate Boyer and holder Cade McCreary. Both upperclassmen, Boyer and McCreary are rock solid. Also, Nate Boyer is a former Green Beret. Don’t mess with our deep snapper. Bad things, man. Bad things. With the entire offensive line returning, it means the entire front wall of the points team returns also.

Someone grab this kicker job and run with it, please. It's one of the biggest goals of spring even if it isn't front page news every practice.

Punt team

I said we’d talk about Fera in a minute. That minute is now. When Anthony Fera transferred from Penn State last year, he came in to kick and not punt because Alex King, a Duke graduate looking to extend his college career, was transferring in to punt. King was sensational, garnering All Big 12 honors and finishing with a Big 12 second-best 45.6 yards-per-punt average and I have little doubt that he will be playing at the next level. Texas had an immediate opening at punter last year and King filled it well. This year there is another opening and I expect another All Conference transfer to fill the void: Anthony Fera.

Many forget that while he was an All Big Ten kicker from Penn State, he also was an All Big Ten punter, averaging 42 yards-per-punt with 18 of his 62 downed inside the 20 and 12 going 50-plus yards. He’s a veteran with skills and experience and I think he will take over this job. That means he could pull double duty like Justin Tucker did (or like he himself did at Penn State) and do both jobs. I

t happens all the time in college and he can certainly do it, but I think the staff would rather see Points Nick win so Fera doesn’t wear down, but if Fera wins them both then he wins them both. I think he does, but Jordan gets plenty of work to spell him on points.

Kyle Ashby returns as the deep snapper and while we will not see who is hungry and who has lost their mind trying to get on the coverage team, the staff will. I’m saying little Vaccaro makes his mark on the punt team. Find the right guys and let's lower that 10 yards-per-return average allowed last year.

Kickoff team

And Vaccaro will also be on the kickoff team. Big brother Kenny got on the field as a freshman and was the Tattooed Missile covering kicks. I expect Kevin will be just as exciting. This is the main unit where you need the crazies, because it's dangerous work running down field to cover kicks. Who will join Vaccaro out there? Texas is loaded with speed and talent and you will see lots of young guys competing for playing time there. We won’t see it until game one, but just know finding those guys this spring is a top priority right now.

As for the kickoff job, that’s sophomore Nick Rose all way. Kickoff Nick had 30 touchbacks last season and at times was dominating. The goal this spring will be to get stronger and get the ball deep in the end zone every time.

The coverage was decent last year, but it could be better.

Kickoff return team

Gone are DJ Monroe and Flash Goodwin. Both players had the ability to score just about every time they touched the ball... Yet far too many times the kickoff return fizzled out before it got started.

It’s another job we will not see develop like a running back or quarterback, but one the staff is working to fill. The first two guys to get a crack will be Daje Johnson and Duke Thomas, but I imagine Kendall Sanders will also get a look. I think Ramonce 2.0 is being created right now with Johnson and, like Taylor, he will excel at returning kicks.

One more thing: the front wall of the kickoff team SUCKS. You have to run back 20 or more yards and wait for the nut jobs running full speed with reckless abandon at you. No fun at all. Hats off to all the guys out there for Texas (and everywhere else) that do that.

Punt return team

Quandre Diggs and Jaxon Shipley will likely be the return men next fall, but nothing is set in stone. Texas averaged a very humble 8.8 yards per punt return last year, which was 61st in the nation. There are too many athletes and too much speed on this team for that to be the case. Diggs and Shipley are vets that have done it before, but both can wear down as starters, so look for the staff to seek out others to fill those roles. Still, if they can’t find them, Diggs can do it. Remember this? Me, too.

The front line of the punt return team is comprised of lots of younger defensive players, so expect to see guys like Shiro Davis, Adrian Colbert and others with a shot at playing time quickly if they can block.

Block team

The block party was back in full effect last year as Texas was third in the nation with seven blocked kicks and led the Big 12 with three blocked punts. I don’t see any reason for that to slow down, although it isn’t something the public will see much. But they are working on it. Again, going with Kevin Vaccaro to be a name to watch when the block unit hits the field.

In conclusion...

Texas has the pieces in place for a terrific special teams unit: veteran kickers, speed all over the field and tons of athletic depth. If they can just get the points sorted out, I think the rest falls into place. Back next week with the defense.

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Trey McLean writes From the Stands for the University Co-op. Follow Trey on the University Co-op Game Day Page, on Twitter @TreyMcLean, or email him here.