Now that we have the player personnel issues discussed we need to talk about what I consider one of the most important aspects of a football team; the Special teams play. Let’s look at the defensive (punting) special teams first.
There are no other plays, save maybe a deep pass completion, that either gain or lose big yardage in one fell swoop than the kicking game. A good punt and coverage can switch the field position of the opponent just as a deep kickoff and coverage can pin an opponent back in its own territory. If a team can do that on a regular basis it has a huge advantage in-game and can even negate whatever talent shortcomings it might have as compared to the other team’s players.
PITT didn’t do that last year and it hurt us. Our departed punter, Matt Yoklic, was pretty effective with his leg averaging a 20th nationally 43.0 yards per punt. He shanked one or two kicks but overall he hid a good job as our punter both last year and seasons before. It wasn’t his punting that hurt; it was the porous punt coverage by the punting team. We gave up 16.25 yards per punt return which is way below the punting “Mendoza Line” and left us smack dab at 118th in the country.
That has to change and fast. This year we’ll have highly rated rsFR Ryan Winslow as the punter. He was recruited specifically to be put on scholarship and I think that is just the way to build a key component of our defense. Winslow came out of high school as the #4 nationally rated punter and had a chance to spend a year with Yoklic learning the college game. I don’t recall how good Yoklic was at directional punting but I seem to remember that Winslow was doing that pretty well in camp last year. We need that skill so I’ll pay attention to it when I go up to the Southside next week. One nice thing is that we didn’t have any punts blocked last year and that was because Yoklic was quick on the draw.
As to the Punt Return team; rsSR WR Kevin Weatherspoon, Boyd and L. Pitts did all the work there, with Weatherspoon leading with 12 returns and as a group they did an OK good job in averaging 10.1 ypr (35th). However, if you look more closely into that stat Boyd greatly bolsters the average with his two returns for 69 yards. I really hope we don’t put Boyd back there more often but we may be forced to unless someone else really steps up. A disturbing note is that we only had 16 punt returns during the whole 13 game season. That sucks and shows how poor our defense was in giving up 1st down.
Maybe looking at our place kicking game will make us feel better. SO Chris Blewitt, a HS 6th ranked kicker and also on scholarship, lived up to his billing with a great true freshman season. He set a FR scoring record for a PITT kicker with 82 points and had a 14/18 success rate including a game winning kick at the end of the bowl game. I remember meeting him and his Dad at the Somerset rest area during the 2013 camp and his Father made some pretty bold boasts about what his son could and would do… “50, 60, 65 yards – Bring it on!!” It was in jest, sort of, and was pretty funny actually. Then his son said “Hey dad, cut it out. I’m the one who’s going to be kicking it, not you”. Nice family and we had another good conversation during a camp practice also. Blewitt will be a real strength for us again this year.
On the other hand our kickoff return defense wasn’t so hot in giving up 21.4 ypk. Considering that Blewitt was kicking off at the PITT 35 yard line and he averaged putting it down to the opponent’s five yard line, that’s an average opponent’s starting spot at the 26 yard line. Not terrible but let’s hope we better that in 2014. A bit of better news was that we still retain both our main KO returners in L. Pitts and Boyd and they alone averaged a pretty decent 22.7 ypr for us.
Add the four other KO returners, Ibrahim, Weatherspoon, Garner and Felder and our total average dropped a tiny bit to 22.0 ypr. All those guys return save Brendon Felder I can’t seem to remember why and how Felder left the team but here is a Twit that says he’s gone. That’s too bad because I had a nice relationship with his Dad who is an interesting guy in his own right.
That about covers the Special Teams with one last item. Last season PITT didn’t have a dedicated ST coach, no one even was listed as having it as a collateral duty except for GA Taylor Mehlhaff as a Special Teams Assistant, and I think it showed up on the field. This has been somewhat rectified for the 2014 season in Chryst’s naming an actual paid staff coach, Chris Haering, as both Special Teams Coordinator and Outside Linebackers.
Next Up: Coaching Staff .