Over the course of Oregon’s first two games of the season, it’s been tough to tell exactly which unit has performed the best: offense, defense or special teams. While the offense will likely catch up to the defense before long, the special teams play has been the most efficient and engaging so far.
Senior defensive back and return man Walter Thurmond III has been a huge contributor on special teams, nearly breaking a return for a touchdown in each of the first two games. He’s returned seven punts for 69 yards and four kickoffs for 119 yards, though his lone touchdown came on defense when he picked off Purdue quarterback Joey Elliott’s pass and jogged into the end zone untouched.
With that play, Thurmond, one of Oregon’s team-elected captains, tied the school record for career interceptions returned for touchdowns with three.
“From spring ’till now Walter has been tremendous,” first-year head coach Chip Kelly said. “Walt loves practice. He wants to play offense and return kicks; he just doesn’t want to get off the field. If that’s who we’re going to follow I’m excited.”
“I’m loving it,” Thurmond said. “Anything I can do to get my hands on the ball and make something happen. Every time I touch the ball I try to score. That’s the mindset even on defense when I get an interception or a fumble.”
Special teams coach Tom Osborne has also been pleased with Thurmond’s play on special teams.
“He’s done a great job so far. We’ve had a couple very close ones from going a long way,” he said.
Osborne also said that equally important to the return man is the play of the other 10 guys blocking for him.
“Our goal is for the guys that don’t have the ball to do an efficient job blocking and finishing their blocks,” he said. “For only playing two games live, our guys have done an excellent job.”
Junior defensive end Zac Clark also had a big special teams play against Purdue when he blocked a field goal with a little over six minutes remaining in the third quarter, but Kelly is more upset over the penalties that gave Purdue extra yardage.
“I’m concerned about the penalties on the special teams,” Kelly said. “I think we played great. We blocked an extra point and Walter had a very good game on returns, but I think we can be even better. I think Tom Osborne is the best special teams coach in the country and it really can be a difference-maker for us this Saturday against Utah.”
For the already strong unit to improve, true freshman punter Jackson Rice will have to continue his good play, and he has not shown any sign of the freshman jitters. Jackson has punted 13 times on the year and is averaging 42 yards per kick, one of which included a 52-yard net punt from the Oregon seven-yard line last week, which helped the defense out tremendously in the field position battle.
“He’s done a great job. He doesn’t get rattled,” Osborne said. “I mean, this guy doesn’t even shave but once a month and hasn’t even attended the first day of class yet. Each of the last two games he’s had a punt that I think he wanted to have back, and then he’s just responded very well the very next punt.”
“Jackson played great,” he said. “He’s grown into his own … I don’t even think of him as a freshman.”