"And by special I don't mean special like that Kleinaman boy down the street. More special like... like Special K, the cereal. Hey, what do they do with the regular K? And for that matter, what ever happend to K. Ballard? You know, if you said mallard and you had a cold, it would sound like ballard..."
And if you said "kickoff coverage" with a loud angry voice, it would sound like a string of four letter words.
Back in early September, I wrote a brief post here about our special teams, and it's a bit annoying that we're still more or less discussing this in late October. So it goes...
Longhorn special teams, Rose Bowl editions
In the days of Vince Young, we prided ourselves in special teams... except for kickers. Dusty Mangum, for all his Rose Bowl heroics, wasn't exactly Phil Dawson, and Pino was, well, Pino. However, we blocked kicks, we normally covered well (except for Steve Breaston), and we had explosive players that could give us great field position on returns, such as Ramonce Taylor and Aaron Ross.
Pino was very nearly the goat for missing a PAT and a short field goal against USC, but when you have Vince Young and company, a need for stellar kickers drops dramatically. Since we could block kicks, cover, and return well, I still say we had a good special teams unit since our offense could cover for any deficiencies with our kickers.
Now, we have this walk-on named Ryan Bailey who earned himself a scholarship as well as Hunter Lawrence and John Gold. We have two very capable place kickers and a good punter. Just great. Except now, our other aspects of special teams aren't there anymore.
Kickoff coverage has been atrocious, and as GhostofBigRoy pointed out, we're ranked 104th in the country in that category. Out of 120 teams. With all due respect to Oklahoma State, who has a darn good team, this was the main reason they stayed in the game that first half. If it wasn't for our horrendous coverage, we would have went into halftime with at least a two score lead and finished the game much the same.
In punt return coverage we aren't nearly as bad and at least are ranked in the top 50 nationally, but we haven't exactly been stellar here as well. At the least, Gold punts well and our offense drives the ball, limiting the number of times the opponent can actually return (as far as number of returns, we're ranked 12th with only 8 returns against us). So while I do remember one big punt return by OU, there's admittedly not a whole lot of data here to say too much. Nonetheless, if our kickoff coverage is any indication, we better be careful here as well.
We're pretty pedestrian on punt returns and while kickoff returns look good, we have to remember that Quan is our main returner and Shipley was the one who took that kick 96 yards for a score against the Sooners. Once against, as GhostofBigRoy points out, if we take out Shipley's run our numbers look pretty mediocre. In other words, we're giving up cheap yards on kickoffs to give opposing offense (GOOD opposing offenses, I might add) shorter fields while our return game fails to do the same for our offense. And while this does tend to help us keep the ball longer as we have long, clock-killing drives, it's a bit unrealistic to assume we can march 80-95 yards on a regular basis. That's fun to see, but that puts enormous pressure on our offense and Colt.
I agree with putting players like Kindle back on special teams. I realize the risk of injury, but something needs to fix the coverage. Special teams can cost us a game if we're not careful. Remember, even with Colt's four interceptions against K-state last year, it was our special teams that ultimately cost us, giving up two return touchdowns. If we need to put starters there to keep that from happening, so be it. Akina has done well with developing our secondary but our special teams has been disappointing.
As far as returns, I'm honestly fine with Cosby returning punts. He doesn't muff it, nor does he take dumb chances. On punts, I lean more towards ball security. I've seen a lot of players try to make a play when they should have simply fair caught the ball, getting clobbered when the ball arrives and fumbling. Cosby may not give us dazzling returns (hopefully he will prove otherwise), but I know that it is highly unlikely he'll make a dumb mistake like that.
However, on kick returns, we need a change. I think Shipley is fine, honestly, but he rarely returns kicks even when the ball goes his direction, and teams obviously prefer kicking it to Cosby. Besides, if they are both wearing out like we're speculating, then we need to have others take over. Muffing kicks is less of a concern on kickoffs, and I think putting in younger guys with some explosion here could help jumpstart some drives as well as taking some burden off of the shoulders of our two most valuable receivers.
It is a bit ironic that now we have kickers we're confident in but we hold our breath when the ball gets kicked to the other team. Come on, Texas. We don't have to block a ridiculous amount of kicks like in the past, but we do need to make opposing offenses at least drive as far as our offense does after kickoffs and such. It's terribly unfair for our defense.
Texas Tech is 18th nationally in kickoff returns and 43rd nationally in punt returns, so they are not as dangerous in that department as OSU. However, they aren't terrible either, and the last thing we want to do is allow Graham Harrell and that Texas Tech offense starting at around midfield on a regular basis.
So Mack, please impart to these players that special teams really is special. And not like that kid down the street special, but more like "you can win or lose the game right here" special.
Just for kicks, here's Ramonce Taylor (sigh... you had so much potential). Look at his funny return against Ohio State at 0:46 or so.