Special teams should improve soon

Scott Fountain Monday Aug. 24, 2020. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/J.T.WAMPLER)

For whatever reason, I have always had a fascination with a football team’s special teams play.

Offense and defense get the headlines, but all too often the kicking game is a big factor in the outcome of a game.

That’s been the case in Arkansas’ close losses this season at Auburn (blocked punt for a touchdown), LSU (allowing possible punt returns to roll deep near the goal line) and Missouri (two unsuccessful PATs) being examples. A blocked punt also contributed to Georgia’s victory in the season opener.

Perhaps my fascination started with the emphasis put on that aspect of the game by my former high school head coach, Newport’s legendary Bill Keedy.

He convinced me early on that I could have a big impact, not only as a hard-hitting safety on defense and a blocker for future Arkansas tailback Billy Warren (and occasional receiver) on offense, but on special teams, too.

He simply wanted me to play like my hair was on fire - and yes I had plenty back in the day - while covering punts and kickoffs and also returning both.

As a guy who loved contact back in the day and was once described on an opponent’s scouting report as “a kid that is simply crazed to find the football before or after whistle,” it was right up my alley.

So for each of the nearly 40 years that I have covered Razorback football, I have made it a point to go inside the numbers and see just what a help or deterrent special teams has been in winning or losing football games.

It’s clearly not been a advantage this season although I will point out that I love Arkansas head coach Sam Pittman’s hire of special teams coordinator Scott Fountain. I believe success will eventually will come based on his track record at previous stints at Georgia and Auburn.

The biggest thing that jumps out this season is that Arkansas has returned just 3 of 40 punts booted its way this season for three yards.

Let this sink in: Arkansas has fair caught or let 37 punts roll and on the three it has advanced, it has been for a one-yard average.

It should thus come as no surprise that the Razorbacks are dead last in the 14-team SEC in that category with six league teams averaging over 10 yards per put return.

Arkansas is eighth in kickoff returns, but its foes have a 25.8 yard average on kickoff returns to the Razorbacks’ 17.4.

Fountain’s old crew at Georgia leads the SEC with a 31-yard return average.

Arkansas opponents have accumulated 487 yards in return yardage to the Razorbacks’ 142, a difference of around 40 yards per game.

Arkansas does have six commits in the 2021 recruiting class that have had success in their high school careers returning punts and kickoffs. Those would be receivers Bryce Stephens, Ketron Jackson, Raheim “Rocket” Sanders and Jadeon Wilson as well as defensive backs Chase Lowery and Keuan Parker.

Arkansas’ punting has been solid with a 42.2 average, but its coverage has been shaky and thus the net is just over 37 yards.

True freshman Vito Calvaruso has 33 touchbacks on his 46 kickoffs while Arkansas’ foes are 35-of-35 on PATs and the Razorbacks 27-of-30.

SEC opponents are 14-of-15 on field goals while Duke transfer AJ Reed has gone 7-of-11 for Arkansas.

“Our punting, kicking game has got to be better,” Pittman said. “We’ll work on that, but it’s not scheme. We’re not getting out-schemed…We just have to continue to get better in that aspect. We have to, obviously, be able to kick the ball through the uprights.”

Pittman said earlier this week that adding depth will help in all special team areas and that his defensive starters were playing too many snaps to be able to contribute much on special teams this season.

“It’s hard to play them on a lot of special teams as well because they’re playing a ton of reps on defense so in the future, we certainly have to upgrade our depth there,” Pittman said.

Arkansas has two five-star kicker/punters in its 2021 recruiting class in Moore (Okla.) Southmoore’s Cameron Little (6-2, 170) and Omaha (Neb.) Creighton Prep’s Patrick Foley (6-3, 200). Foley will arrive as a preferred walk on.

Moore was 6-of-8 on field goals this season with a long of 49, was 23-of-23 on PATs, punted for a 42.6 yard average and had 33 touchbacks in his 36 kickoffs.

He even completed 3-of-3 passes on fake punts for 56 yards and both of his onside kicks were successful.

Foley was 6 on 7 on field goals with a long of 45 and his only miss from 55 and 28-of-28 on PATs. He also punted 40 times for 40.7 net average and had nine punts inside the 20.

“I also had the lowest return yards on my punts in the state because the returners were forced to fair catch,” Foley noted.

That sounds like part of the equation of putting the special back in special teams.