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College Football

College Football Scoreboards Schedules Standings Polls Stats Conferences Teams Players Recruiting` INSIDE COLLEGE FOOTBALL

Not So Special

Early-season kickoff and punt teams aren't all that they should be

by Ivan Maisel

Posted: Wed September 9, 1998
 
Sports Illustrated
  Chad Morton
Morton steamed past a bunch of Boilermakers on his 98-yard touchdown return.    (Robert Beck)
Nothing scares a college football coach more than the first kickoff of the season, unless it's the first punt. A dirty secret of college football is that many coaches, fearing injury to their players, don't practice their special teams at full speed. That's why so many big plays in the kicking game decide openers. Some teams aren't ready.

  • Iowa's Kahlil Hill returned a punt 62 yards for a touchdown and a kickoff 88 yards for a TD in the Hawkeyes' 38-0 shutout of Central Michigan.

  • In a 42-0 rout, Air Force scored twice against Wake Forest's special teams, falling on a fumbled punt in the end zone and returning a blocked punt 17 yards.

  • USC and Arizona each returned the first kickoffs they received this season for touchdowns, against Purdue and Hawaii, respectively.

  • Notre Dame took control of its game against Michigan in the third quarter by forcing a fumble on a kickoff return and blocking a field goal. Each play set up an Irish touchdown.

Special teams have amassed 16 touchdowns in openers this season—15 on returns (of six blocked kicks, five kickoffs and four punts) and a fumble recovery in the end zone. Nine touchdowns were scored on kickoff and punt returns in last year's season openers. During the final three weeks of November last year, by contrast, teams returned only six kicks for TDs.

After Syracuse committed blocking penalties on its first three punt returns last Saturday, Orangeman defensive back David Byrd explained the lapses by saying, "Ain't nothing like game speed." The difference between your scout team and the opponent's first team is never as pronounced as in special teams situations. Even if coaches were inclined to use starters against starters when practicing kick returns, it would be difficult to do. Often the same players start on both kicking and receiving teams. But most coaches in the 85-scholarship era won't practice kick coverage with full contact because of the danger of injury. "You get people hurt, more than anything else," Florida State coach Bobby Bowden says. "There's a way to stop that. Get a Janikowski."

In Florida State's 23-14 defeat of Texas A&M two weeks ago, the Seminoles' Sebastian Janikowski put all six of his kickoffs into the end zone. That gives a kickoff coverage team a false sense of security. Two of Janikowski's kicks were run back, and on one of those occasions Texas A&M's Dante Hall returned the ball 49 yards. "Instead of just running downfield in your lane, as in practice, people are hitting you," Florida State junior tailback Jeff Chaney says. "In a game, people are moving all over the place."

Hawaii found that out the hard way. "You have some guys who haven't been in a live situation, but you ask them to go out there anyway," Rainbow Warriors special teams coach Doug Semones says. Arizona's Chris McAlister returned Hawaii's opening kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown in the Wildcats' 27-6 victory. "Our guys ran down and got blocked and didn't get off their blocks," Semones says.

Coaches talk about special teams being as important as the offense and defense units. Sometimes that's all it is—talk. "You come into spring prepared to get guys ready to fill holes on offense and defense," says USC special teams coach Shawn Slocum, whose Chad Morton returned the first kickoff to the Trojans this season 98 yards for a touchdown in a 27-17 victory over Purdue on Aug. 30. "In the fall, on special teams you still have question marks. Once you get two or three games in, you find out who's dependable."

By then, it may be too late.

Issue date: September 14, 1998

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