When new Texas Longhorns head coach Steve Sarkisian assembled his first coaching staff on the Forty Acres, one of the biggest coups was luring special teams coordinator/tight ends coach Jeff Banks from the Alabama Crimson Tide, where he’d spent the previous three seasons.
“His roots in recruiting are really here in in the great state of Texas, but he’s also in my opinion the premier special teams coordinator in the country,” Sarkisian said in January. “So we get a fantastic coach there, we get a fantastic recruiter with with ties to the state.”
After the Alabama special teams took a big jump from No. 89 in SP+ in 2019 to No. 13 in 2020, Banks is taking over a decidedly average special teams unit from Jay Boulware that finished No. 50 nationally and features enough talent and depth to make the same type of improvement the Crimson Tide did last year.
“I feel good about our special teams,” Sarkisian said after Saturday’s second scrimmage. “I think that we’ve got depth, we’ve got really good returns, I think our kicking game is really sound, that aspect of it is good.”
Asked about special teams during his first media availability since taking the Texas job, Banks first mentioned senior kicker Cameron Dicker, who is currently the starter in all three phases of the kicking game.
“I was just super impressed with Cameron Dicker this offseason,” Banks said. “In the spring, he had very, very good outings in those 15 practices and he’s kind of followed up, right? Spring is one thing, coming into fall camp’s another.”
Dicker is now three years removed from his star turn against Oklahoma as a freshman with three total game-winning kicks to his credit. He’s been steady, too, moving into sixth place in overall points scored in school history and fourth place among place kickers.
After missing two kicks inside 30 yards over his first two seasons, Dicker was more consistent from short range as a junior while lacking some accuracy between 30 and 49 yards, missing two from under 39 yards and three more from between 40 and 49 yards.
At No. 6 in school history in field-goal accuracy, Dicker is talented enough he could take that final step in his development as a place kicker by cutting out a few of those misses from under 50 yards. From beyond 50 yards, Dicker has enough leg to hit from 58 yards during the Orange-White game after making a 57-yarder against Rice in 2019 that tied for the seventh-longest in school history.
With a 98.1-percent accuracy on extra points, there aren’t any concerns about Dicker missing a key attempt late in a close game — he’s not quite Hunter Lawrence, who only missed one extra-point attempt in his career, but he’s close.
On kickoffs, Dicker has arguably been even better with his 73 kickoffs putting Texas No. 1 nationally in average distance and No. 5 in touchback percentage.
When punter Ryan Bujcevski suffered a torn ACL against West Virginia in early November, Dicker took over punting duties, averaging 43.6 yards per punt before improving to 46.8 yards per punt on six punts during the spring-ending scrimmage. With only 27 qualifying punters averaging more yards per punt than Dicker did in his limited sample size last season, the range for Dicker as a punter compared to his peers nationally looks to be good to elite.
The biggest concern for Banks is not wearing out Dicker’s leg as he handles all the kicking for the Longhorns.
“We’re not worried about how many teams he’s on or how many things he’s doing, but we certainly are going to limit the amount of reps, day in and day out,” Banks said. “We’re going to try to be on like a four-day-a-week schedule with him because he’s punting and kicking and kicking off. We don’t wear them out and then all of a sudden we get to the third, fourth, fifth, sixth game and he’s not kicking the ball off as deep and his leg starts to get a little bit weary.”
Mental makeup is always critical for kicker, but Banks put more emphasis on the technical aspect of handling multiple phases and not letting the straight-ahead aspects of place kicking impact the directional kicking required as a punter.
If Dicker tires or falters as a punter, freshman Isaac Pearson could be ready to contribute at some point this season or Bucjevski could work his way back to full health. Banks called Pearson a pleasant surprise after averaging 49.5 yards per attempt in the Orange-White game. During last Wednesday’s open practice, Pearson didn’t look consistent enough to truly threaten Dicker right now, but he also didn’t have the bad shanks that characterized Bujcevski and his predecessor Michael Dickson as they adjusted to live kicking in American football.
Freshman walk-on Bert Auburn, a Flower Mound Marcus product ranked No. 12 nationally by Kohl’s Kicking Camps who also held preferred walk-on offers from FIU, Oregon State, and Texas Tech, also drew praise from Banks with his emergence as the backup place kicker.
At the deep snapper position, Banks inherited two veterans in multi-year starter Justin Mader, now a senior, and junior backup Zach Edwards, an Oklahoma transfer who appeared in three games last season, including two as a holder.
Banks prefers to use a quarterback or punter as the holder, working junior quarterback Casey Thompson, redshirt freshman quarterback Hudson Card, Bujcevski, and Pearson in that role during preseason camp.
“They’ve all been really good, and thankfully we’ve had no issues that way, but a lot of it, to be honest, is because Mader and Edwards put it right on,” Banks said.
In the return game, senior cornerback D’Shawn Jamison has three touchdowns in the return game, including a 100-yard kickoff return to swing momentum in the upset of Oklahoma State last year, putting him one touchdown behind Jordan Shipley for the school record.
As good as Jamison has been, after breaking down the film Banks found a few areas for him to improve fundamentally, like not letting punts hit in front of him against Oklahoma or catching the ball outside the framework of his body. Then they started putting in the work on the JUGS machine to make Jamison a more technically sound returner.
Banks pitched the need for improvement to Jamison as helping his potential NFL future since he’s an undersized cornerback listed at 5’10 — to make a roster at the next level, he’ll need to stand out as a return man.
The other aspect beyond improving the fundamentals is getting Jamison familiar with the schematic changes Banks has made in the return game.
“I think he’s starting to get a feel for the play calling and when we want to go to the field, when we want to hit it up inside, all those things,” Banks said.
Early in preseason camp, Banks said he got after Jamison during a couple practices and Jamison responded to the tough coaching.
“I think DJ is going to have a great season because I think he’s putting the work in and I think he gets it now, like it isn’t just about being back there and catching the ball, it’s how I catch the ball and it’s where the return’s going and it’s how to set those things up,” Banks said.
Some additions to the return units have increased depth, including junior wide receiver Joshua Moore, freshman wide receiver Xavier Worthy, and sophomore running back Keilan Robinson, along with the availability of sophomore running back Bijan Robinson for those duties. Super senior safety Brenden Schooler has also done some work as a return man, but will likely remain a core special teams player who contributes in other ways.
“I just kind of like where we’re at with the return game — we’ve got plenty of body types, plenty of different speeds, and I think we’ve got some guys that have some home-run speed,” Banks said.
Banks called Moore a natural who catches the ball well and can stick his foot in the ground and get upfield. For Worthy, his football intelligence and assertiveness have helped him make strong decisions about when the field the football.
When selecting players for the special teams units, Banks started off with evaluation drills and coverage in spring practice, evaluating which players have the effort, technique, and athletic ability to contribute. After building the three deep, the coaches made some adjustments — moving a guard to tackle on kick return or switching a front-side player to the back side on kickoff coverage.
The coaches are also cognizant of how many snaps a starter plays. Someone like senior linebacker DeMarvion Overshown, for instance, might only play on one or two special teams units as a result. Since those snaps are so valuable, Banks tries to put those players in the most impactful positions, like using them as a returner, on punt block, or at the apex of coverage units.
So there’s always a need for freshmen to step up and contribute on special teams, with Banks singling out cornerback Ishmael Ibraheem and linebacker Morice Blackwell as early standouts in preseason camp.
Those young players could round out some special teams units with core players like Schooler, sophomore safety Jerrin Thompson, sophomore cornerback Kitan Crawford, senior cornerback Josh Thompson, and junior safety Tyler Owens.
With enough talent and depth across the board, now it’s up to Banks to put the right pieces together and make the right schematic changes to maximize his talent — as much as Banks is known as an ace recruiter, he’s making $1 million this year to be a difference maker as a special teams coach.