Special teams is an under-appreciated yet critically important facet of any football game plan. Kicking field goals, punting the ball and how well your defense is able to cover punts and kickoffs and prevent long returns can be and frequently are game changers in the college game.
Not to mention the ability to return kickoffs and punts for good field position.
In college football, the term special teams can refer to four different specialty units. Some players can be found on more than one special teams unit, but generally speaking, special teams exists for:
- Punting, punt returns and kickoffs,
- Field goals and extra points,
- The unit that sets up to block field goals and extra-point situations, and
- The group that handles kickoff-return coverage.
The Big 12 featured several of the country’s top punters, field-goal specialists and punt and kickoff returners last season, and a good number of these same special-teams players are back again this season.
Baylor senior Spencer Roth led the Big 12 in punting as a junior last season and was No. 6 nationally with a 45.8-yard average. Oklahoma’s Michael Hunnicutt was No, 16 nationally in field-goal accuracy on 24 out of 27 field-goal-attempts. And return specialists Tyler Lockett of Kansas State, B.J. Catalon of TCU and Levi Norwood of Baylor will be heard from again this season.
Here is how I rank the Big 12 teams on special-teams play coming into the 2014 season:
- Oklahoma Sooners – Several seasons back, Bob Stoops’ Sooners were one of the country’s worst at covering kickoffs and yielding long return yardage. Plus, the Sooners were very inconsistent in converting field-goal attempts. Neither area is an issue this season. Michael Hunnicutt led the Big 12 last season in overall scoring, averaging 9.6 points per game and is the most accurate returning FG kicker in the conference with an 88 percent accuracy rate. Punter Jed Barnett landed 22 of 65 punts inside the 20-yard line and had 11 of greater than 50 yards last season.
- Kansas State Wildcats - Whenever you have an explosive return man like senior Tyler Lockett at your disposal, good things are bound to happen. For as long as I can remember there has been a Cantele kicking field goals at K-State. These days the Cantele at the placekicking controls is Jack, a junior, who was goof on 11 of his 13 FG attempts in 2013, The Wildcats will have to replace departed punter Mark Krause.
- Baylor Bears – Kicker Aaron Jones got a lot of scoring opportunities with Baylor’s nation-leading scoring offense last season. But he is gone, leaving as the Big 12’s all-time scoring leader and second best all-time among NCAA Division I players. But Spencer Roth, who may be the best punter in the country you’ve never heard of, is back, and so is his powerful leg, which averaged almost 46 yards a game last season. Baylor fans may not have long to fret about the Bears’ FG-kicking game, though, as incoming freshman Chris Callahan appears to be another star kicker in the making. Senior Levi Norwood ran back two punt returns for touchdowns last year, and he’s back for more in 2014.
- TCU Horned Frogs – The Horned Frogs are set for 2014 in the kicking game, with kicker Jaden Oberkrom and punter Ethan Perry back as third-year starters. Oberkrom was successful on 14 of 18 field-goal attempts a year ago and has made 79 consecutive extra points, a TCU record. Perry placed 29 of his 80 punts inside the opponents’ 20-yard line. TCU also has great speed in the return game with junior B.J. Catalon and sophomore Cameron Echols-Luper.
- Texas Longhorns – The Longhorns will sorely miss Lou Groza Award winner Anthony Fera on punts and field-goal tries this season. One of the nation’s best kickers last season, Fera was good on 22 of 24 field goals and averaged 41 yards per punt. With a talented bunch of speedy backs and receivers, including Daje Johnson and Jaxon Shipley, both of whom were streaky good in the return game in 2013, big return yardage is always a possibility every time the Horns touch the ball. Texas coaches, however, would like to see more out of its kickoff return and punt return teams in 2014.
- Texas Tech Red Raiders – Field-goal kicker Ryan Bustin returns in 2014 after setting a new single-season school record with 23 FGs made in 27 attempts. Looking to improve in the special teams area this season, head coach Kliff Kingsbury brought in a special teams coordinator, Darrin Chiaverini, to give closer attention to that area of the game. Tech will be breaking in a new punter this season following the departure of Ryan Erxelben.
- Oklahoma State Cowboys – For an extended period of time, the kicking game, with the likes of dan Bailey and Quinn Sharp, was one of the strengths of the Oklahoma State team. Not so the past couple of seasons, though, as OSU’s kicking game has struggled to find consistency. Coach Mike Gundy is hoping for better from his kickers in 2014. The Cowboys have huge shoes to fill in the return game, losing both Justin Gilbert and Josh Stewart, two of the best in the league at returning kicks. The ‘Boys were the No. 1 team in the conference a year ago in kickoff coverage.
- Iowa State Cyclones - There is no Kirby Van Der Kamp, who has been a fixture back in punt formation for four seasons, in 2014. True freshman Colin Downing, rated the top punter/kicker in the state of Wisconsin in high school, takes over the punting duties for the Cyclones. Field position has been an important part of coach Paul Rhoads’ game plan with Van Der Kamp’s leg. Whether Downing can do the same remains to be seen. The Cyclones were average or just below in about every ST category, and this shouldn’t change much in 2014.
- West Virginia Mountaineers - Last season, West Virginia ranked 95th in the country in kickoff coverage and 112th in kickoff returns. This cannot happen again in 2014 if coach Dana Holgorsen’s troops want to move up in the Big 12 standings. Converted running back Mario Alford, who has been moved to wide receiver, was impressive returning kicks in the Mountaineers’ spring game, so there is some hope for improvement in the kick-return game in 2014. West Virginia seems set at punter with the Big 12’s second-best punter last season, junior Nick O’Toole, who averaged 44 yards per kick and had 26 go over 50 yards.
- Kansas Jayhawks - Kansas has only won one Big 12 game in Charlie Weis’ two seasons as head coach. There’s a good reason for that: The Jayhawks are not very good – or certainly not in comparison to most every other team in the conference – in most aspects of the game. You can include special teams, with the exception of senior punter Trevor Pardula. As a junior, Pardula ranked just below West Virginia’s O”Toole. Pardula’s 43.7 average was third best in the conference. Field-goal kicking was a problem last season, and is a concern for Weis and his staff this coming season. Matthew Wyman, who walked on last fall as a freshman and reportedly was awarded the placekicking duties after a student tryout, converted only five of 10 field-goal tries last season. He did connect, however, on a 52-yard try at the end of the game against Louisiana Tech regulation to give the Jayhawks one of their three wins last season.