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Wednesday, December 18, 2013
Sooners' report card: Special teams

By Brandon Chatmon

Jay Boulware had a solid first season as Oklahoma's special teams coach. The special teams helped win multiple games during OU's march to the Allstate Sugar Bowl yet they weren't a dominant unit that did everything well.

Here is a unit-by-unit report card for the Sooners' special teams:

Placekicking: A. Remember the days when each OU field goal attempt was an adventure? Michael Hunnicutt has put those days in the past. He hit 23 of 26 attempts, including 21 of 22 from inside 40 yards. He also hit 41 of 42 extra point attempts. Hunnicutt’s average attempt came from 33.2 yards, so his long-distance ability wasn’t tested much but his accuracy and ability to be automatic on closer kicks cannot be overlooked. His 23 field goals led the FBS and his 26 field goal attempts was second among FBS kickers.

Punting: C+. Jed Barnett had games where he played a key role in the Sooners winning the field position battle but he didn’t finish among the Big 12 leaders in several of the main punting categories. Barnett averaged 41.64 yards per punt, sixth in the Big 12, and was last in the conference in net punting at 35.17 yards per punt. The junior college transfer did rank No. 3 in the Big 12 in punts inside the 10 yard line (13.6 percent). Barnett wasn’t terrible by any stretch of the imagination but he wasn’t a game-changing weapon either.

Kickoffs: A. Easily the most overlooked contributor on the squad, Nick Hodgson was very good. He led FBS and the Big 12 in yards per kickoff (64.3) while his kickoff touchback percentage (65.6 percent), ranked first in the Big 12 and No. 7 among FBS kickoff specialists. OU decided to focus on simply getting touchbacks and taking opportunities out of the hands of kick returners and Hodgson executed that plan with precision.

Kickoff coverage: C-. The Sooners were bad on kickoff coverage, allowing 23.68 yards per kick return, ranking No. 8 in the Big 12 and No. 106 among FBS teams. Opponents’ average starting position was 26.7 yard line, meaning they had to go, on average, 73.3 yards to score against OU’s defense. Because its kick coverage was subpar, OU was better off going for touchbacks than allowing the opportunity to return a kickoff while trying to pin opponents inside the 25-yard line.

Kickoff return: B. The Sooners averaged 22.76 yards per kickoff return, ranking fourth in the Big 12. Running back Roy Finch was the biggest threat, averaging 27.5 yards per return on 14 returns. The senior returned 28.6 percent of his returns for 30 yards or more. It wasn't a unit that put fear into the heart of opponents but Finch, Trey Franks and Brennan Clay consistently put OU in pretty good position to begin drives.

Punt coverage: F. OU allowed 16.33 yards per punt return, ranking ninth in the Big 12 and No. 117 among FBS teams. Yikes. The Sooners are lucky their horrible punt coverage didn’t cost them a game. It’s an area that must improve in 2014.

Punt return: A+. As bad as OU’s punt coverage was, the punt return game was better. That unit actually turned the momentum of games around, particularly with Jalen Saunders' punt returns for touchdowns against Iowa State and Oklahoma State. Saunders averaged 16.78 yards per punt return, second in the Big 12 and No. 7 in the FBS.

Overall: B. Hodgson, Saunders and Hunnicutt are stars but OU’s coverage units were average or below average. Nonetheless, the Sooners won some games thanks to their special teams.