Oregon’s emphasis on special teams should see the unit become a major strength.
Heavy expectations were placed upon the 2017 Oregon Ducks football team after missing a bowl game for the first time in over 10 seasons. The team’s coaches and Twitter account preached “Do Something,” as a way to win some fans back in the offseason. Once the season started, it was time to either do it or continue the bad taste that was left in everyone’s mouth after Oregon lost the 2016 Civil War in Corvallis.
On the opening kickoff of the first game of the 2017 season against Southern Utah, Oregon running back Tony Brooks-James did something.
Brooks-James caught the opening kickoff one yard deep in the end zone and took the ball back for a touchdown with blocks from Troy Dye, Hunter Kampmoyer, Jonah Moi and Kaulana Apelu. It was possibly the most exciting play by Oregon all season and it was not a pick six or a 60-yard pass. It was a kickoff return, and Brooks-James was the very first Duck to touch the ball. One play, 101 yards, six points. Although the play brought so much excitement, it was the lone special teams touchdown by Oregon all season.
Now “Do Something,” and the coach who coined the phrase are gone. Mario Cristobal and new special teams coach Bobby Williams are here and ready to bring the Ducks back to their 2014 glory where touchdowns came in all forms.
Often unnoticed by fans until a problem arises, Williams sees special teams as the third side of the game, making or breaking a team. Oregon experienced both sides last season. The Brooks-James touchdown put them up 6-0, but Washington’s Dante Pettis’ go-ahead punt return touchdown broke a 3-3 tie over the Ducks in November.
Williams is the newest Oregon special teams coach and the 30-year coaching veteran boasts quite the résumé. He has spent his last 10 years coaching Alabama where he contributed to five national championships.
The 2015-2016 National Championship in particular had his special teams unit on full display. The Crimson Tide blocked a field goal, returned a kickoff for a touchdown and recovered two onside kicks (one attempted by Alabama and one by Clemson) en route to the championship.
“His schemes are just off the charts,” wide receiver Brenden Schooler said. “He knows what the heck he’s doing. I don’t think I’ve been around a smarter special teams coach since I’ve been in college. … He’s showed us [Kenyan Drake’s kickoff return in the National Championship] a few times, saying “If we catch you slipping, we’re gonna take advantage of it.”
Schooler is returning for his third year on special teams. The former safety had seven tackles during special teams last season and learned to love it.
“You’ve got offense, defense and special teams, and if you win two out of the three, you’re most likely going to win the game,” Schooler said. “I didn’t realize how important special teams was until I came to college and saw that special teams can really change the tide of the game.”
Schooler has been a special teams contributor for two seasons and will most likely continue to be one. But with his role as a wide receiver expected to increase, Oregon will need more dynamic playmakers to step up on special teams. Wide receivers Johnny Johnson III and Jaylon Redd are teammates Schooler says will help take the load off.
Oregon will face a decision at two major special teams positions for the first time in four seasons. Two four year starters, long snapper Tanner Carew (now with the Chicago Bears) and kicker Aidan Schneider, have graduated, forcing the Ducks to hold a competition at those spots.
Senior Devin Melendez and freshmen Karsten Battles and Peyton Yanagi are competing to start at long snapper. Although it’s not the flashiest position, any mistake would be a disastrous result for the Ducks.
“We’ve got a pretty good competition going on there, too,” Williams said. “You never notice that position until the ball goes over somebody’s head.”
Schneider will be a tough Duck to replace at placekicking and on kickoff. He hit 80 percent of his field goals last season and forced a touchback on 50 percent of his kickoffs.
Last year’s punter, Adam Stack, is the favorite to replace him in both duties. The sophomore will look to build off his first season in which he saw the field exclusively as a punter. Stack averaged 38.37 yards on 62 punts his freshman season, landing five inside the 20-yard line. This year he has added another duty: placekicking.
“The hardest part is just it’s literally two different motions,” Stack said. “Kicking, you’re coming more across your body and punting is more of a linear motion, so it’s difficult just because it’s two different muscle memories. Your body has to be able to cancel one out when you’re doing the other.”
The added responsibility could add conflict for some, but Stack believes he has found the proper training for both, alternating practice days to better separate the muscle memories.
“I try to be pretty even with them,” Stack said. “One thing I learned from one of my kicking coaches was to practice kicking one day and punting another day just so you develop that muscle memory. Of course I have days where I do both, which compares more to gameday.”
Punting does not always get the best reaction from the home crowd. Some fans in the Autzen crowd still long for the gutsy Chip Kelly “Go for it” attitude, booing when the punter enters the field, thinking it’s admitting defeat. Stack does not see it that way.
“I try not to look at it as a bad thing, but more as a not the last play for the offense, but the first play for the defense,” Stack said. “I’m helping them pin the opponent deep and hopefully if I pin them deep, [I] help the offense get the ball back and get some points on the board.”
Although Stack is the favorite for kicking duties, the punting job is up for grabs just like every other group. Junior Blake Maimone and Australian freshman Tom Snee are also competing for the punting job. Sophomore Zach Emerson and freshman Taylor Koth are the other kickers on the roster.
“We’ve got a lot of guys back there,” Williams said. “Stack’s doing a good job. Maimone is doing a great job. Our new signee, Snee, has done a great job. He’s added a different dimension for us. Emerson’s doing a great job. They’ve all raised their level of performance.”
The one who sticks out from the bunch is Snee. Hailing from Melbourne, Australia, the freshman specializes in a different style kick.
“Most of those guys over there play Australian rules football,” Williams said. “It’s really similar to rugby, but it’s very physical. They run around and can tackle. They specialize in kicking the football in a certain way.”
By moving across the world to play a different sport, Snee has learned an entirely new sport on the fly.
“Prior to actually being here, he’s had to learn about American rules football,” Williams said. “Anything about fourth down, what’s allowed and he also works as a holder. It’s been a learning process for him.”
The last competition probably brings the most excitement to Ducks fans. With Charles Nelson graduated and Brooks-James seeing more action at running back, both punt and kick return duties are available.
Dillon Mitchell returns as the favorite for the punt return spot. The receiver had 11 returns, averaging just over eight yards. Redd, Travis Dye, Daewood Davis and safety Ugochukwu Amadi are others who have received reps.
Williams’ top priority when choosing a returner is reliability with big plays being an added bonus.
“We chart these guys every day on being efficient on catching the football,” Williams said. “We’ve got a camera on them all the time. We’ve got a lot of guys to look at back there.”
With Williams at the lead, Oregon expects to own the third side of the game with a dynamic, do-everything unit.
“Last year we felt like everything was the same and teams were able to scheme against us much better,” Schooler said. “After this year, it’s gonna be a lot different.”
Follow Maverick Pallack on Twitter @mavpallack
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