- Brandon Chatmon, ESPN Staff Writer
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NORMAN, Okla. -- Oklahoma’s special teams have gone from an area of weakness to an area of strength in recent years. After poor coverage teams and subpar place kicking made people question the Sooners' commitment to those units, OU has been second to none with their special teams since 2011.
Here are three reasons to be hopeful about OU’s special teams this season and three reasons to be concerned.
Dynamic returners: Jalen Saunders is a major threat on punt returns and boasts the ability to change a game with those skills like he did in Bedlam 2012. Roy Finch and Brennan Clay bring terrific return abilities of their own on kick returns. New special teams coach Jay Boulware raved about his returners during spring football and there are several talented young guys who could step in at a moment’s notice as well. Don't be surprised if a kick or punt return makes a major impact on a Sooners' game this year.
Solid place kicking: There was a time the Sooners’ kicking game was a hot topic in Norman. It hasn’t been mentioned much this August. Junior Michael Hunnicutt has excelled as the Sooners’ starting kicker for the past two seasons, hitting 38 of 45 career attempts (84.4 percent). He doesn’t possess an exceptionally strong leg but his accuracy overcomes his limitations.
Trey Millard: The senior fullback has arguably been the Sooners’ best special teamer since his freshman season. He’s a great blocker on return units, terrific on coverage units and sets the tone with his physical, aggressive play. He will be the perfect example to his younger teammates on special teams units as they get their feet wet on special teams and begin to understand the third element of the game is a way to separate themselves.
Kickoffs: Boulware would like to have the ability to kickoff through the end zone whenever he feels like it. He does not have that right now. Or, if he does, it hasn’t been shown yet on Saturdays. Hunnicutt recorded touchbacks on just 26.6 percent of his kickoffs in 2012. Fortunately for the Sooners, their kick coverage was outstanding and opponents’ average starting position was the 22-yard line, which led the league and is better than the standard 25-yard starting position after a touchback.
New punter: Tress Way was the Sooners’ punter for the past four seasons. His career average was 44 yards per punt with a career long of 85. He had 71 punts of more than 50 yards and 91 punts downed inside the 20-yard line during his 250 career punts. He won’t be easily replaced. Jed Barnett is set to get the first shot at replacing Way after signing out of junior college in February.
Long field goals: Hunnicutt missed two of four attempts of over 40 yards last season and didn’t attempt a field goal longer than 50 yards. The junior was solid at those yardages as a freshman, however, going 3-of-3 from over 40 yards and 1-of-1 from over 50 yards in 2011. Nonetheless, Hunnicutt is not the type of long range threat that puts the Sooners in field goal position shortly after they pass midfield.
4dJake Trotter and Brandon Chatmon