- Max Olson, ESPN Staff Writer
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AUSTIN, Texas -- A game as big as Texas vs. Baylor demands an appreciation for the finer details.
We know Baylor can score 70 points, the Longhorns need to run the ball, somebody will play defense and turnovers and injuries will likely doom the loser. That’s obvious.
What has Mack Brown’s attention this week is special teams. The Longhorns have a Lou Groza Award finalist in kicker/punter Anthony Fera. However, their play in the other areas of the game’s third phase hasn’t come close to award-winning.
Fera is now 19 for 20 on field goals and practically automatic. He’s also a top-25 punter nationally when it comes to pinning opponents inside the 20 and 10. There can be no complaining about his contributions.
But some of Texas’ other special teams numbers this season are not too friendly. Consider the following:
Kickoffs: Nick Rose earned praise from Brown as a freshman for his knack for touchbacks. This season, he’s getting those on 45 percent of his kickoffs, an above-average rate nationally. The coverage of those kicks has been the greater issue.
Kick coverage: Texas ranks fifth-worst in FBS at giving up returns of 30-plus yards, at a rate of nearly 30 percent. Opposing returners are getting stopped short of the 25-yard line just 36 percent of the time.
Kick returns: The Longhorns are averaging 20.9 yards per return, which ranks 74th nationally. Less than 13 percent of Texas’ returns have gone for 30 or more yards. No touchdowns, either.
Punt coverage: Texas is giving up 12.1 yards per punt return, which ranks 107th in FBS. The Longhorns have permitted four returns of 20-plus yards.
Punt returns: If not for Daje Johnson’s 85-yard score against Oklahoma, Texas would be averaging 7.8 yards per punt return. That would rank outside the top 70 nationally. Jaxon Shipley might be the solution here after averaging 13 yards on his four returns last week.
Penalties: Texas ranks among the 10 worst nationally when it comes to special teams penalties, with 18 this season.
Against Texas Tech, the Longhorns allowed a 51-yard touchdown run by a punter, drew a roughing penalty and Fera had a 19-yard punt. Brown liked what he saw from the kick coverage and Shipley’s returns, but kick returns and punt coverage are an issue.
“Those were two things that we need to fix,” Brown said.
That might be easier said than done this week. Weather forecasts call for freezing rain, temperatures below freezing and 15 mph winds in Waco. There’s no way to simulate that in practice, but Brown has already started thinking ahead.
“You've got a situation on Saturday afternoon, you can probably kick it out (on kickoffs) two quarters and you'll probably have to look at some other type of kick for two quarters,” he said, “because if it's 15 miles an hour right in your face, I don't know that you're going to kick it out very often.”
Fera isn’t a fan of rubgy-style kicking either, which will complicate punts. With Fera’s experience kicking in adverse weather at Penn State, the Longhorns won’t have to worry much about his field goals and extra points.
“I do feel like he's as good as there is out there in his field goals,” Brown said. “He's just been unbelievable.”
That’s an invaluable asset, especially in a game this big. But Fera can’t fix Texas’ specials team woes all by himself.