Tom Murphy is a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of Louisiana Tech University, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America, and voter for the Heisman Trophy and AP Top 25 football poll.
Special teams not-so-special for Hogs in 2012
Arkansas kicker Zach Hocker leads the SEC in kickoff distance and touchbacks, but, by his own admission, is not having his best season.
FAYETTEVILLE Arkansas enjoyed perhaps the best special teams season in its history in 2011.
The kicking units provided a spectacular highlight reel unto themselves, with Joe Adams becoming a YouTube sensation with his four punt return touchdowns that led to his winning the inaugural Johnny Rodgers Award as the nation’s top return specialist.
In addition, Dennis Johnson and Marquel Wade brought back kickoffs for touchdowns, Dylan Breeding had a booming season at punter and Zach Hocker kicked his way up the school scoring charts with 21 field goals.
The Razorbacks’ kicking units have endured a substantial drop off in 2012, however, with no touchdown returns and Hocker’s production falling off from his previous levels.
The Razorbacks are one of just 14 Football Bowl Subdivision teams without a defensive or special teams touchdown in 2012. Arkansas joins Colorado, Kentucky, Louisville, Michigan State, South Florida, Virginia and Washington State as the only schools from BCS automatic qualifying conferences with no non-offensive touchdowns.
Breeding has been the special teams’ top performer, ranking sixth nationally with a 45.8-yard punting average that has spurred Arkansas’ net punting to an 18th national ranking.
“We’ve done pretty well, with our net average going up from last year and our average staying around the same. I feel like we’ve been a game-changer throughout the season,” said Breeding, who was seventh nationally with a 45.3-yard punting average last year.
The punt team has also had its rough moments as well, including a snap over Breeding’s head against Alabama that set up the first score of the game, and a blocked punt by Ole Miss that swung momentum to the Rebels in the second quarter.
Other than Breeding’s work, the top highlights have been Zach Hocker’s strong kickoffs (he leads the nation with 64.88 yards per kick), Byran Jones’ blocked field goal on Jacksonville State’s opening drive in the season opener and D.D. Jones’ blocked extra point against Tulsa two weeks ago, which helped contribute to red zone decisions that came back to haunt the Golden Hurricane the rest of the game.
Hocker entered the season with a career mark of 37 of 46 (80.4 percent) on field-goal attempts and on pace to destroy the school’s kick-scoring marks. The junior from Russellville eclipsed Steve Little’s career kick-scoring record last week and now has at least 14 games to build on his record 285 points.
However, Hocker’s missed opportunities this season stand out more than his converted field goals. A high snap helped doom his 41-yard try in the rain that would have drawn Arkansas within 7-3 in the first quarter against No. 1 Alabama.
Hocker also missed a chip shot 26-yarder at the end of Arkansas’ game-opening, 67-yard drive at Auburn. He also missed a 26-yarder late against Tulsa that would have given the Razorbacks a 22-15 lead.
“It’s not my best season by any means,” Hocker said. “I’m not living up to the standards that I set for myself.
“It’s not characteristic of me to go out there and miss a 26-yard field goal. May have been lackadaisical, loss of focus.”
Hocker is 30 for 30 on extra point attempts to make him 141 for 143 in his career, and he’s 11 of 16 on field-goal attempts this year, with a long of 46 yards in the Hogs’ 19-15 victory over Tulsa. He ranks third in the country with a touch back percentage of 72.6 percent.
Dennis Johnson, the SEC’s all-time kickoff return yardage leader with 2,763 yards, including three touchdown returns, is having the worst season of his career in that department. His average of 18 yards per return ranks 12th in the SEC and 100th in the country, and he recently had a two-game stretch against Ole Miss and Tulsa in which his returns did not reach the 10-yard line due to muffed catches and a knee touch.
Freshman punt returner Nate Holmes, who was starting to show promise in recent weeks, suffered a concussion at South Carolina last week,and senior Kaelon Kelleybrew will get a shot in that role against Mississippi State on Saturday.
Hocker, who came to Arkansas as a punter, has his sights set on triple duty next season: kicking off, punting and place kicking.
“I would love to do all three next year,” Hocker said. “They’ll probably bring in a couple of guys to compete at the spot, but me being an upperclassman and having some experience behind me, hopefully I will be able to win that spot out and be able to do all three next year.”
Breeding said Hocker could “absolutely” take on the trio of responsibilities in 2013.
“He does well in practice when we kick,” he said. “I don’t think he’ll have a problem stepping in at all, as long as he doesn’t kick too much.”
Sports, Pages 22 on 11/16/2012