Thursday, December 13, 2012
Texas special teams underwhelming
By Carter Strickland
Texas continues to produce seasons that warrant backward glances, if only to make sure the past stays put. No one wants to relive that again. But the time has come to look over the shoulder and the damage that 2012 hath wrought, where it all went wrong and why it might get better in 2013.
This week, HornsNation takes a look at the 2012 program. Up today is the defense and how it will leave its mark as the worst in Texas history.
On Thursday, room will be saved for punter Alex King, arguably the most consistent and reliable of the 2012 Longhorns, and the special teams unit.
AUSTIN, Texas -- Goal setting can often be a slightly trick proposition around Texas, with the road maps previously used from 2000-09 apparently gone missing.
But, nonetheless, Longhorns coach Mack Brown, in a bold proclamation, had one goal seemingly above all others -- yes, that included picking a quarterback -- as he entered the 2012 season.
"What we do is No. 1 would be to try to have the best kicking game in America," he said on Aug. 4.
Oh boy. Where to begin?
To start let’s give some credit where it is due. Alex King was the most consistent performer on the Texas football team this year. Sure he is a punter. But he was one of the best in America. So, in that sliver of special teams play, Brown got the best in America.
Texas also blocked seven kick attempts, a mean feat by any measure. And the Longhorns finished a successful 25th in the nation in kick return yards (They were 68th in punt returns).
Everywhere else -- meaning those spots where Texas has some of the best athletes and top speed in the country -- well, in a style that pretty much sums up the 2012 program, in as nice as terms as possible, they underperformed. And just like everywhere else in the Texas program, it is hard to fathom why.
Sure youth and injuries played a role. Anthony Fera struggled with a hip injury. But when declared fit to kick, the Penn State transfer made just 2 of 4 kicks and missed a crucial 41-yarder against West Virginia. It was the first time in Brown’s tenure that a kicker had missed a game-tying or winning kick deep in the fourth quarter.
Eventually, Fera was replaced by freshman Nick Jordan who started 3 of 7 before finishing 5 of 6. At the time Fera was replaced against Iowa State he was said to be healthy. Later he was placed on the injured list again with that bothersome hip.
Texas kickers finished a combined 10 of 17 and had two kicks blocked.
Given that Justin Tucker had been so consistently reliable and ended his career with one of the biggest field goals in Brown’s tenure against Texas A&M in 2011 (although there were seven previous game-winning kicks in the Brown tenure) it was a difficult transition for a team that, at times, was in dire need of three points.
The lack of faith to get those points often times forced Texas into situations where it would press and go for it on forth downs. That the Longhorns finished 12 of 21 of fourth-down conversions, with two of those completed being in last-minute drive situations where no other call was to be made, is evidence to the fact Texas would have been significantly better off with the "best kicking game in America."
Had field goals been the only issue, maybe not living up to expectations could be overlooked or at least received on a glancing blow of criticism. But the kickoff coverage was the most befuddling of pratfalls committed by special teams in 2011.
For two weeks against significantly weaker opponents, this unit teased toward greatness. Dalton Santos was taking on Pecos Bill folklore status. His tales of growing up fast and hard fit snuggly into the manuscript provided by his play on the field. The freshman didn’t just hit people -- he turned them to dust.
Anthony Fera's reaction after missing a game-tying field goal against West Virginia was more commonplace than Longhorns fans would have liked.
Then the group that labeled itself the "Wild Bunch," after corralling the likes of Wyoming and New Mexico, was dusted by Ole Miss’ Jaylen Walton on a 100-yard kickoff return.
This unit, again blessed with speed and skill, ended up 81st in FBS in yards allowed. It got so bad against West Virginia, kicker Nick Rose, once praised for a cannon leg, was relegated to firing a pea shooter and squib kicking the ball. And still WVU had a wild return of 16 yards.
These breakdowns were particularly galling in light of the fact Texas, for the first time in Brown’s tenure, set aside extra dedicated time in August to work on special teams.
"What we're trying to do, we're trying to have the best special teams we've ever had," he said Aug. 22. "We are meeting more than we've ever met, we've done more live stuff, we've had two kicking game scrimmages that we usually put into the scrimmage ..."
Again youth played a role in the special teams miscues. Not as much as refusing to commit to running lanes or avoiding blocks. But the coverage team did not have a starter on it. It might not again in 2013, although every player that was on this season’s unit should be back next season, so the experience to be better will be in place.
So too will the expectation to once again try and have "best kicking game in America."