'Third' of game not special for UA

By: Tom Murphy
Published: Tuesday, September 25, 2018
Anthony Schwartz, Auburn wide receiver, runs after a catch in the 2nd quarter vs Arkansas Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018, at Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn, Ala.
Photo by Ben Goff
Anthony Schwartz, Auburn wide receiver, runs after a catch in the 2nd quarter vs Arkansas Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018, at Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn, Ala.

FAYETTEVILLE -- Among the various meetings for University of Arkansas Coach Chad Morris and his staff on Monday night was the weekly special teams session with quality control analyst Tanner Burns.

At the top of the agenda were suggestions for improving a couple of areas in the kicking game, which already had lingering issues before turning into a raging bonfire in Saturday's 34-3 loss at No. 9 Auburn.

The coverage units -- both on kickoffs and punts -- were exploited badly. Various breakdowns on those units led directly or indirectly to 24 of Auburn's points, such as Noah Igbinoghene's 96-yard kickoff return touchdown after Arkansas had pulled within 17-3 early in the third quarter.

Arkansas outgained the Tigers in total offense 290 yards to 225 yards, but it did not equate to an edge in the flow of the game because of the special teams exploitation.

"Special teams, very disappointed," Morris said at his Monday news conference.

"The amount of emphasis we place on special teams around here, and to put the production out that we did was unacceptable."

Morris said the use of more starting players in the kicking game would be a likely change for Saturday's 11 a.m. game against Texas A&M in Arlington, Texas.

"If that's going to help us, I'm all for it," defensive coordinator John Chavis said. "I'm all in. That's what we'll do. And it's not unusual for defensive starters to be starters on one or two special teams.

"Obviously we're trying to develop depth and that's where we'd rather have our twos in there and rest them some on defense and have our best players on special teams."

Offensive coordinator Joe Craddock agreed, saying if quarterback Ty Storey could help on the units he'd be OK with playing him there.

"Do whatever is best for our team," he said. "That's a third of the game, special teams. If they have to use our best players, so be it.

"We've got to win that third of the game. We can't lose that third of the game, just like we can't lose the offensive third of the game either."

The punt team turned in the most troubling performance at Auburn, both in protecting punter Reid Bauer and in coverage.

Auburn's first touchdown, less than five minutes into the game, was set up by Ryan Davis' 48-yard punt return to the Hogs' 27, which got an assist by an unseen shove in the back by Daniel Thomas against deep snapper Jordan Silver near the spot Davis caught the punt.

Auburn rusher Jordyn Peters got his hand on one punt and actually over-ran another when he could have easily had a block in the first half.

"We had a couple of missed assignments on the front line," Morris said to explain the blocked punt.

The three-man shield in the backfield of Austin Cantrell, T.J. Smith and Michael Taylor did their jobs, but the missed assignments up front allowed Peters to get through to Bauer, Morris said.

The blocked punt late in the second quarter gave Auburn possession at the Arkansas 9 after an 11-yard return with the Tigers leading 10-0 and 3:08 left in the half. The Razorbacks' defense actually held on third down on that series, but Randy Ramsey's sack of Jarrett Stidham included a face-mask penalty and Stidham scored two plays later with the fresh set of downs from the 4.

It was that kind of night for the Razorbacks.

"Your fundamentals have to hold up under pressure," Morris said. "And that's something we've got to go back and we're going to look at it. It was unacceptable, and we've got to get better in all phases in our special teams."

The punt team has been problematic throughout the first four games, with returning starter Blake Johnson, Bauer and Matthew Phillips all getting chances to punt in games.

The Razorbacks rank No. 127 out of 130 FBS teams in net punting with an average of 27.2 yards per punt. Net punting takes returns into account and deducts 20 yards for punts into the end zone that result in touchbacks.

Arkansas is No. 126 in punting average at 33.9 yards per punt. The Hogs are tied for No. 8 with 7.0 punts per game.

The punt team also fell victim to North Texas' faux fair catch ruse two weeks ago, when Keegan Brewer acted as if he'd caught a fair catch, then sprinted by the Razorbacks for a 90-yard touchdown.

With the addition of a 10th on-field assistant coach this January, Morris hired Mark Smith to assist with Ron Cooper in the secondary rather than hire a special teams coordinator as some programs have done.

"A lot of programs across the country do exactly what we're doing," Morris said. "We have a special teams ... analyst, which goes in and breaks it all down and puts together the plan.

"And we all look at it in a staff meeting and look at it as each coach has his own individual responsibilities in special teams."

An analysis of SEC coaching rosters shows that four of the 14 teams have not designated a special teams coordinator, with Missouri, Ole Miss and Texas A&M joining the Razorbacks. In some instances, the special teams coordinator also handles or assists with another unit on the team.

Morris said the weekly special teams meetings include 15 to 20 minutes each day on every phase of special teams.

"We'll continue to do that," he said. "The thing about this, as I looked at it, it can be fixed. We just have to go back to putting the pressure on to where when the pressure is on, fundamentals have to hold up."

Sports on 09/25/2018

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