- Brandon Chatmon, ESPN Staff Writer
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NORMAN, Okla. -- Oklahoma’s special teams units have had their ups-and-downs in the past five years. Multiple kickers on scholarship and shoddy coverage teams left lasting images in the minds of Sooners fans. Fortunately for OU, the production of its special teams units has improved recently, including a stellar performance in 2012 as those units played direct roles in helping OU win multiple games.
Jay Boulware hopes to take the Sooners’ special teams units to another level.
The Sooners' new special teams coordinator has several talented pieces to work with, including punt returner Jalen Saunders and kickoff returners Roy Finch and Brennan Clay. Saunders broke open Bedlam with his 81-yard punt return for a touchdown, Clay helped the Sooners capture a Big 12 road win at West Virginia with his 46-yard kickoff return in the final minutes and Finch had OU’s lone kickoff return for a touchdown with his 100-yard gallop against Kansas.
“None of the kids that I've been around at my last two stops were nearly as talented as these kids are as return men,” said Boulware, who coached Iowa State and Auburn before his arrival in Norman. “I tell these kids all the time, there's no reason they shouldn't be the most feared return unit in the country because they are that talented.”
Kicker Michael Hunnicutt, too, has provided much-needed stability in the kicking game for the past two seasons. He has made 36 of 43 career field goal attempts, but the Sooners are looking to transform Hunnicutt into a better weapon from 40 yards and beyond.
“He’s an 80-percent field goal guy,” Boulware said. “We just need to continue working and progressing on our field goals outside of 40 yards.”
The major concerns with the special teams this spring are replacing four-year starter Tress Way at punter and finding a kickoff specialist. OU recruited junior college punter Jed Barnett to replace Way and he’s been solid so far.
“He's one of the few guys I've seen at punter that's a true two-stepper,” Boulware said. “He does it a little bit differently than most guys I've ever seen. That is a really good characteristic to have because that means his catch-to-kick time is below average, 1.3 (seconds), which is what we look for.”
A two-step punter generally gets the punt off quicker than most punters, who often use two-and-a-half or three steps to get a punt in the air.
Barnett has made a smooth transition into the program. Finding a kickoff specialist, however, is now priority No. 1 for Boulware.
“That’s the one area I feel like we’re not as far along as we need to be,” Boulware said. “You have to realize I’ve had the best kicker the last two years (at Auburn). I’m used to a guy that can put it in the stands; we should have that here. And we’re going to get that here. We’re going to get a guy who can put the ball in the back of the end zone from the 35-yard line on a consistent basis.”
Yet Boulware is pleased with OU’s special teams overall. He believes the success of the returners will depend on the rest of the return unit and is in the process of evaluating the Sooners’ roster to find the best fits for each unit.
“I’ve been evaluating guys,” Boulware said. “I had time over spring break to go back and do some research so I’m learning the personnel.”
What is he looking for?
“Speed, enthusiasm, energy,” Boulware said. “I like guys that want to play. I even look at kids that are walk-ons, kids that want to run down on kickoffs, not everybody wants to do that. You look for a guy who has that ‘want to’ but also that ability.
“When you find that mix that has energy, ability and enthusiasm and put them in the right places, you can come up with something pretty special.”
1052dJake Trotter and Brandon Chatmon