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Texas Longhorns spring football: Special teams overview

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The Longhorns have some major question marks on special teams entering the spring.

Texas will have to replace kick returner DJ Monroe this season
Texas will have to replace kick returner DJ Monroe this season

Departures: DJ Monroe, Marquise Goodwin, Alex King

Additions: Duke Thomas, Kendall Sanders, Marcus Johnson

Projected depth chart:

Position No. Player | No. Player | No. Player
Punt Returns 6 Quandre Diggs | 8 Jaxon Shipley
Kickoff Returns 27 Daje Johnson | 21 Duke Thomas OR 3 Kendall Sanders

80 Marcus Johnson
Kickoffs 23 Nick Rose | 28 Nick Jordan
Holder 86 Cade McCrary

Snapper (PAT/FG) 37 Nate Boyer | 45 Kyle Ashby
Snapper (Punts) 45 Kyle Ashby | 37 Nate Boyer
Punter 9 Anthony Fera

Place-Kicker 28 Nick Jordan | 9 Anthony Fera | 23 Nick Rose

Storyline: The biggest problem with the 2012 Longhorn special teams unit was consistency at the kicking position. Penn State transfer, Anthony Fera, was supposed to fill the gaping hole left by former Longhorn and now Super Bowl Champion, Justin Tucker. Unfortunately, Fera suffered a groin injury that sidelined him for the opening half of the season and continued to affect his kicking after he returned.

In the Big 12 last year, the Longhorns tied West Virginia for last place in field goals, hitting 13 of their 19 attempts and only two field goals of 40+ yards. They also missed three extra point attempts, tying Iowa State for worst in the conference.

Texas ranked fifth in total return yards in conference play last season. Unfortunately, the two players that anchored that unit have graduated, and the Longhorns will have to start fresh in 2013. I expect Daje Johnson and Duke Thomas to handle a majority of the returns.

Of the four possible returners listed on the projected depth chart, Daje is the only one with any serious playing time under his belt. His explosive speed (he clocked a 4.34 40-yard dash) earned him a spot on the field as a true freshman. However, if Daje becomes a more featured running back in Applewhite's new offensive scheme, his availability as a return man could change.

Duke Thomas is another player who could contribute significantly to the return game. Thomas, who ran the 4x100 at the state meet as a junior in high school, was named a third-team All-State kick returner. Thomas' speed and experience will help him in the upcoming season.

Two other possibilities at kick returner are wide receivers Kendall Sanders and Marcus Johnson. Both Sanders and MJ were all-district special teams players at their respective high schools. Sanders recorded 4.39 40-yard dash and played wide receiver in ten games for the Longhorns in 2012. MJ recorded a 4.41 40-yard dash and played both as a reserve wide out and on special teams in eight games last season.

All four of these speedsters have an opportunity to contribute to our return game, but because they are young, expect a moderate learning curve.

In 2011, Texas ranked second in the conference with long punt return plays (20+ yards) with twelve. In 2012, Texas ranked last with two. This change could have occurred for a number of different reasons, inexperience at the return position, struggles in the blocking game, inept strategy.

My personal guess would be that the drastic fall in punt return dominance was because our defense never forced the other team to punt. Oh look, I was right. In 13 games last season, Texas had 14 punt returns.

Texas only forced the opponent to punt 51 times -- the only teams that performed worse in this category were Kansas and Baylor. Assuming Texas improves on defense in 2013, the favorite to continue returning punts will be Quandre Diggs. However, because Texas is so thin in the defensive secondary, and because of the strong possibility that Diggs moves to safety, I would venture to guess that Shipley will return punts instead of Diggs.

Once again, this is all under the generous assumption that our defense stops opponents on third down next year.

Alex King was only a Longhorn for one year, but he was a damn good one. King punted at Duke for three seasons before transferring to Austin. In those three years in Durham, where punting is more common than scoring, King earned second team all-ACC honors. In his one year for the Longhorns, he was a first team all-Big 12 selection. King was a bright spot during a relatively lackluster season. "What do you mean lackluster season? We went 9-4, you troll."

King has left some big shoes to fill, and right now it looks like Anthon Fera will take over punting duties. It will be similar to the latter years of Justin Tucker, the only difference is that I am not sure Fera will punt rugby style. I actually have no idea who will punt if Fera gets injured. There is no back up listed on any depth charts that I can find. It probably will be Jordan or Rose?

This is a legitimate fear of mine because I don't believe that Texas really has a backup plan here. My friend Wes Cole is a pretty good punter for our intramural team, maybe Texas will take the walk-on route for second string punters.

Battle to watch: Anthony Fera vs. Nick Jordan

The definition of battle is "A sustained fight between capable, organized forces." Based on last year's results, I am re-categorizing this as a "skirmish to watch" or even "glorified pillow fight." The kicking game last year was atrocious. Texas ranked last in field goals during conference play. It was a sad fall from grace that blindsided Longhorn fans who are used to a smooth transition between kickers. Though I do understand that Fera was not at 100 percent, it was still a horrifying experience knowing that no field goal attempt was a sure thing.

Jordan was 9 for 15 on field goal attempts. He never attempted anything over 50 yards and was inconsistent at anything north of 30. Fera was 2 for 4 with 2 missed point after attempts. Hopefully, Fera and Jordan have gained some consistency and confidence this off-season.

My optimistic prediction is that Fera comes out and plays extremely well next season, but if he struggles anymore with injuries and Jordan shows only minimal growth, expect Texas to start going for it on fourth and five inside their own 40.

Overview: With some serious changes in the return game and an unpredictable kicking game, it is hard to know what to expect next season. This special teams unit doesn't lack any talent, so next year's success will be determined by the growth and development of the players. I am cautiously optimistic about these guys, but as a Longhorn fan, I will pray for the best and prepare for the worst.