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Texas Longhorns struggling mightily on special teams

The third phase has not produced any advantages for the Horns.

Cooper Neill

Athleticism, effort, and attention to detail.

For the coverage and return units, those are typically the factors most associated with success on special teams and the Texas Longhorns haven't been finding much success in any of those facets through two games, all while the specialists also struggle.

In the past, former head coach Mack Brown split up special teams duties among several coaches, but with the staff featuring a head coach and defensive coordinator who have both coached defensive backs during their respective careers, the job of special teams coach on the new staff fell to defensive backs coach Chris Vaughn.

The results have not been heartening and the two biggest issues currently reside with the specialists.

Kickoff specialist Nick Rose, a junior from Highland Park, has not been able to secure the place-kicking position after the departure of All-American and Lou Groza award finalist Anthony Fera. In two games, Rose has made only one of three kicks and missed twice from distances that should be relatively automatic. Against BYU, his first attempt never had a chance.

The 33.3% conversion rate for Texas so far has the team tied for No. 103 in the country, though penalties right before both of the misses perhaps deserve some blame for putting more space between Rose and the uprights.

There doesn't seem to be much help for Rose on the way, either. Fellow junior Nick Jordan didn't take a redshirt season last year despite the fact he didn't play and hasn't been dressed for the first two games of the season, with head coach Charlie Strong indicating on Monday that Jordan has been injured.

Unless he's been hurt since the spring, however, the recent injury isn't the reason he's behind Rose, as Jordan seems to have lost the job during the first months of Strong's tenure, hardly a positive sign for his ability after he struggled as a freshman and Rose has struggled so much in game action.

Former US Army All-American Ben Pruitt hasn't come close to cracking the depth chart in his time on campus, so he's probably not a legitimate option either.

For the immediate future, it looks as if Rose will have to work through his struggles, even as major questions arise about his ability to consistently put the ball through the uprights.

At punter, there may be more competition, though senior William Russ still sits atop the depth chart there after improving his performance overall from the North Texas game.

After averaging 38.2 yards per attempt on five efforts against North Texas, Russ managed 42.6 yards on his eight punts against BYU, a development that has Texas sitting at No. 86 nationally in overall average heading into the UCLA contest.

The problem is that Russ is still inconsistent with both the length of his kicks and the hangtime that he gets on his kicks. A line drive from poor field position hung the punt coverage team out to dry and the result was a 39-yard punt from the Texas 8-yard line that resulted in an 18-yard return for BYU and starting field position at the Texas 29-yard line.

Seven plays later, BYU quarterback Taysom Hill ran through a host of Texas defenders to stretch the lead to 27-0.

The punting feeds into the field position battle, but a lot of the poor starting field position against BYU was a result of the kickoff return unit, according to Strong.

"But the kicking game, you look at the kickoff return, we had too many penalties, and it really hurt us," said Strong. "You look at the drives for our offense, I think our average starting field position was around the 14-yard line, and some of it was because of just the return, with getting a penalty or whatever it may be. But we have to do a better job. We have to be better in the kicking game. When you talk about all three phases, that's what we have to do because you can generate points, and that's what we're not getting, and field position kills us."

After the poor punt by Russ and the rushing touchdown for Hill, the kickoff return unit came onto the field for Texas and junior wide receiver Marcus Johnson promptly fumbled the football on his 19-yard return, setting up the Cougars with the football on the Texas 24-yard line.

Four players later, Hill once again scored on another short touchdown.

Aside from the kickoff return unit committing two penalties on the game and fumbling the ball once, Johnson hasn't been particularly explosive, helping Texas rank No. 74 nationally with an average of 20 yards per return. One of the problems has been the poor work of the blockers directly in front of Johnson -- junior defensive end Shiro Davis and junior linebacker Dalton Santos. And also poor overall effort (and results) from the entire kickoff return unit.

The story with punt returns isn't much different -- Texas isn't producing any big plays, though the fault may lie more with senior wide receiver Jaxon Shipley than with terrible blocking. Shipley, who may not be entirely healthy after he missed most of fall camp with a hamstring injury, is currently averaging 6.6 yards per punt return, a number that ranks No. 73 nationally.

With junior wide receiver Daje Johnson out, the Horns may not have any better options at the moment, though senior cornerback Quandre Diggs may have a bit more burst at the moment than Shipley.

For the coverage units, the kickoff return team has only had two kicks returned against them, in part because Rose put the ball deep into the end zone against North Texas on most occasions and because the offense only scored once against BYU.

The two returns against the Horns, however, have gone for 23.5 yards per return, which ties Texas for No. 101 nationally in that stat.

There is actually good news on the punt coverage side -- despite the 18-yard return by the Cougars that helped put last weekend's game even further out of reach, the Horns have only given up an average of 5.17 yards per return, No. 46 nationally.

Vaughn was supposed to at least fix the problems on the coverage and return units. It hasn't happened yet with the possible exception of punt coverage, all while the specialists have had some notable miscues.

It's not a good combination and one that will continue to hurt the field position and ability to score for the Longhorns over the next several weeks unless things start to improve.