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Texas emphasizing special teams after years of miscues

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Tom Herman has taken a number of steps to bolster the flagging third phase.

NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Texas Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Dropped snaps. Missed field goals. Blocked extra point points. Abysmal return units.

Under former head coach Charlie Strong, the Texas Longhorns were generally nothing less than an abject disaster on special teams, hitting a low point against the Oklahoma State Cowboys last season when the Pokes blocked not one, not two, but three extra points against the ‘Horns.

One was returned for a touchdown, which marked the second time in 2016 that an opponent blocked an extra point and returned it for a touchdown, which set an NCAA record.

No longer.

At least if new head coach Tom Herman has anything to say about.

While Strong infamously put out a public call for a kicker in the spring of 2016, Herman found a place kicker of his own exactly two weeks after arriving in Austin and days after the recruiting dead period ended.

No public pleas necessary.

Whether or not junior college transfer Josh Rowland can provide some long-needed stability at the position, he was a second-team NJCAA All-American last season and the No. 1-ranked junior college kicker by 247Sports.

In addition to actual game experience beyond high school, Rowland also has some toughness, according to Herman, who doesn’t like to refer to his specialists by name until after they graduate.

“I like him more than other kickers that have been around because he's halfway normal and I think he's got a bit of a toughness to him,” Herman. “We ended today's practice with a two-minute drill needing a field goal to win. Then we simulated bobbling a snap where the holder fell on the ball, called timeout so now we've got to go back and try it again. Then we iced him, and then had the whole team come out, form a tunnel of noise and he nailed the thing right through the uprights.”

The Texas head coach didn’t reveal the outcome of the earlier attempts, but there is at least some cause for cautious optimism heading into the season.

If Rowland can’t handle the job, there are three other kickers on the roster — senior Mitchell Becker, the kickoff specialist, redshirt freshman Chris Naggar, and freshman Jack Geiger.

Becker and Naggar probably have the biggest legs, and Becker has hit both of his field-goal attempts at Texas, though both came from less than 25 yards in the 2016 season finale against TCU.

A San Jose native, Geiger is the latest addition to the mix. The 5’11, 195-pounder is listed as a kicker on the team’s roster, but he was regarded as a better punter prospect coming out of Bellarmine College Prep.

Herman has also taken steps to ensure that there are no more blocked kicks, which he termed “unacceptable” on Wednesday, by adding Oklahoma State graduate transfer Kaleb Smith, who has three years of experience as a deep snapper on punts, field goals, and extra points.

The biggest problem last season was that deep snapper Jak Holbrook is only 5’11 and 215 pounds, but was being asked to block defensive tackle weighing nearly 100 pounds more than him.

When the guards didn’t provide him enough help against the Cowboys, he didn’t stand a chance.

“That's a difficult team to be on because when you get real dudes in the middle there, that becomes a war inside for about a second and a half,” Herman said. “I think we've helped ourselves by bringing in a fifth year transfer short snapper that's got a little bit more girth on him to protect the A-gaps.”

Smith certainly does have more girth — he’s listed at 6’3 and 275 pounds, so in addition to his experience, his pure mass should help him hold the point of attack for that critical 1.5 seconds.

On the rest of the special teams units, including the coverage and return units, Herman mostly echoed associate head coach Stan Drayton’s Tuesday assertion that only starters will play on special teams.

“I know skill position guys on offense will not be allowed to touch the football unless they're starting on special teams,” Herman said. “I believe our number one punt team is made up of all starters as of now and then most of the rest of the special teams will be starters or key backups.”

During his four seasons at Sam Houston State, Herman worked as the special teams coordinator and his philosophy since then has been to rest players on offense or defense if they need a breather — it doesn’t happen on special teams.

“I think special teams miscues are much more disastrous than an offensive or defensive miscue, and so we're going to put our most trustworthy guys on those teams.”

So perhaps the Texas special teams will actually be special again, instead of costing the team in important moments.