I am going to write a special teams story for Thursday’s paper as it seems to be a bit of a topic this week. I’ll tell you off the top – I don’t think hiring a special teams coordinator is necessarily the solution.
The flaws are easy to point out. Punter Sean Poole has nailed several booming kicks that have been covered perfectly, like his 52-yarder against Miami that netted 54. But he’s also mishit a bunch. Kickoff specialist David Scully, like Justin Moore before him, have had trouble reaching the goal line. Moore has had a pretty rough year kicking field goals.
I see where it makes sense to say, special teams needs its own coach, someone who can spend all his time on the kickers and punters honing their technique, improving the kickoff return game and telling Zach Laskey not to pick up a bouncing punt inside the 10-yard line. On the ACC teleconference Wednesday, I asked Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe about the pros and cons of having a coach dedicated exclusively to special teams, which he’d decided to do for the first time this year. He said it has turned out well, that he liked having a coach who could spend the whole practice with the specialists and could spend all of his time during the day preparing the game plan, studying film, etc.
Wake Forest kicker Jimmy Newman is 13-for-14 on field goals, which validates Grobe’s argument. The only problem is, Wake’s punting unit is about as ineffective as Tech’s. Tech’s net punting average is 34.9 yards and Wake’s is 34.4. (If you’re wondering, Wake’s average isn’t skewed by a long return, either. The longest punt return against the Deacons this year is 23 yards.) Their kickoff return units are just about the same (20.9 yards for Wake, 19.6 for Tech), and I’d say that Tech’s kickoff return team is the most underperforming unit on special teams. Despite Wake putting nine kickoffs into the end zone for touchbacks, to Tech’s four, its net kickoff coverage is less than 3 yards better than Tech’s.
Florida State looks like it has far and away the best special teams in the conference this season. The Seminoles are first in kickoff coverage (they have 19 touchbacks, which I imagine must make you salivate), first in punt net, second in kickoff returns and fourth in punt return average. Kicker Dustin Hopkins is 12-for-13 on field goals. However, they’re managing that despite essentially handling special teams the way that Tech does. Their special teams coordinator is also their running backs coach. Tech secondary coach Charles Kelly doesn’t have a special teams coordinator title, but he serves in that capacity.
Virginia Tech, widely regarded as having some of the best special teams in the country under coach Frank Beamer, had all kinds punting problems earlier in the year. I read something kind of interesting about Beamer this week. He said that he never coaches his kickers and punters on technique and he tells his staff to leave them alone, also. He lets their private coaches do all of the technique stuff.
The other thing is this: if not having a special teams coordinator was the real problem, then the problems would be systemic. However, Tech has blocked or deflected two field goals and a punt. The long snapping has been fine (and I realize that sounds ridiculous, but I imagine no one would have any problems arguing it the other way if a few long snaps had been botched). Tech’s punt cover unit wouldn’t be as good as they are when Poole does hit it well. Punt returner Zach Laskey wouldn’t have an 8.5 yards-per-return average. Scott Blair wouldn’t have been 15-for-17 last year on field-goal tries and Poole wouldn’t have averaged 39.5 yards per punt prior to his knee injury.
I’d say the kickoff return unit probably needs to be coached better and its players need to execute better. Other than that, it’s hard to know what to do. Laskey brain cramped at the absolute wrong moment, but he’d been doing pretty well up to that point this season. Poole and Scully have the leg (not the same one) but are having all kinds of consistency problems. And that’s it (although that’s a lot). If they were kicking with reasonable consistency, special teams wouldn’t be an issue. (I realize that saying if Tech’s kickers were better, then the special teams would be better, is a bit dippy. But that’s what it is.)
Their ability to perform consistently ultimately falls on Johnson – he gave them scholarships and is responsible for their coaching. Perhaps it’d be better if a coach were with them all the time refining technique, but as I mentioned earlier, that approach has helped Wake Forest be .5 yards worse at punt net and it’s the exact opposite methodology of the coaching staff with traditionally the best special teams units (Virginia Tech).
And I’m going to guess that Laskey knew to not field a bouncing punt. After Miami scored, he came to the sideline, Johnson said, owned his mistake and said he didn’t know why he tried to field it. But I’m not sure if having a full-time special-teams coach telling him a few more times to not field a bouncing punt than he’d already been told would have prevented that. It was a bad mistake by a true freshman, and maybe that’s the extent of it.
Further, having a full-time special teams coach would take away one position coach from the offense (Tech’s staff has five offensive assistants and four defensive) and I’m not sure anyone at this point is going to say the offense needs less coaching.
I realize I’m only addressing this year’s issues. I get the sense that special teams hasn’t, at the least, been a great strength. I’m not sure how I feel about essentially agreeing with Johnson on this. (Perhaps this would make Johnson a little uneasy, also.) Ultimately, he’s responsible for special teams. He’s responsible for the coaching and the players he’s putting on the field who, to this point, are underperforming.
I’d have to think that the coaching can somehow be better, perhaps on the visualization and confidence-building side, as that’s where so much of kicking is, and if that’s the case, then that’s Johnson responsibility. I have little doubt that the specialists are killing themselves trying to be more consistent, but maybe they’re just not having very good seasons. It happens sometimes. I will bet that Johnson will spend a lot of time in the offseason trying to figure out how to improve the unit. But I don’t know that a full-time special teams coach is the solution.
The Anderson Independent Mail reports that Dabo Swinney expects running back Andre Ellington to play Saturday, that guard Brandon Thomas has gotten out of Swinney’s doghouse and that Clemson is much better in the second half than it is the first (not that the Tigers are chopped liver in the first).
A Charleston Post and Courier story about Clemson’s defensive coordinator Kevin Steele’s emphasis on angles. The Post and Courier also provides the weekly “How do you stop Tech’s offense?” story, although this one is much better than most. Lastly, a column about the Tech-Clemson rivalry and the 2009 ACC championship game.
Matt Winkeljohn’s typically incisive analysis for Sting Daily.
Thanks for reading. I’ll have the injury report up early evening and something up Friday morning. And my thanks to those of you who offered to make copies of the 1990 UVA-Tech game for Calvin Tiggle. We’ve got it taken care of. Much obliged.
Ken Sugiura, Georgia Tech blog