o, the longest season of Bearcats Football in recent memory is in the books. I am fully aware that there have been worse seasons outright, even within the past 20 years UC has won 4 games or less 7 times. But for the most part those teams competed without the burden of expectations. This team came into the season with high expectations, expectations befitting a two time defending conference champion. Those expectations are also what is making so many members of the Bearcat Nation despair for the glory years of last year. There is plenty of time to discuss all of the things that made this year into a perfect storm of, well, shit in the weeks to come. My goal is to do a break down of the team, position group by position group, by the end of the bowl season highlighting surprises, disappointments ect. At some point I will outline all of the disparate elements that contributed that perfect storm. But for today I am going for a larger scale, focusing just on the special teams.
In a word, the special teams of the last few years have been exceptional. The mere mention of special teams is enough for me to recall the Halcyon Days of Kevin Heuber and Mardy Gilyard. Heuber was UC's first player to land on multiple All American teams in back to back seasons. Gilyard single handily ended UC's 145 game kickoff return TD drought with this gem against Oklahoma and 53 weeks later ended a12 year punt return drought against Southeast Missouri State. Between the two of them UC has claimed the last three Big East Special Teams Player of the Year Awards, Huber in 2007, Mardy in 2008 and 2009. The thing is that all the exceptionalism of the past few years has come to naught this year and the special teams under Butch Jones have not measured up to past outfits.
The most glaring deficiency in the special teams department has come on returns. As outlined above, Mardy Gilyard was a difference maker in the kicking game. It is very easy to get accustomed to having that around. For a coaching staff Its very morish, like cocaine, first they try it, then it turns out they kind of like it, then they will do anything they can just to get some more of it. But once you go into withdrawal it's no fun at all. Ask Clemson fans how their detox from C.J. Spiller is going.
Theoretically UC's return game should have been OK, Darrin Williams was back with Mardy for all of 2009 and acquitted himself well enough at the position averaging almost 30 yards per return with a TD against SEMO. D.J. Woods was the number two punt returner a year ago and returned 3 for 45. D.J. was beaten out by Vidal Hazelton for the spot opposite Williams on kickoffs, but he held onto the punt return job. Then Vidal went down against Fresno State on a kick return and Darrin Williams was knocked out for the year in the Oklahoma game and all return duties fell to D.J. Woods, and eventually Anthony McClung. For the year D.J. averaged 22.75 yards per kick, 7.68 per punt. Down from 30.50 and 12.63 for Mardy a year ago. That is not all on D.J.'s shoulders though. Kick returning is something of an innate skill. A person either has it or he don't. With Mardy returning kicks you could sense that the game was moving so slowly for him which is the ideal for a return man. Last years Pitt game served up the perfect example of the game moving slower for Gilyard.
In the course of the return Gilyard makes a cut around the 30 yard line. When he made it the hole he eventually exploded into wasn't even there, but he knew that the hole would be there. Watching live it is as if he was granted the gift of foresight by Shiva or something. Now it seems as though no one on this team has that same ability. Last year Mardy had 5 games where he had over 100 yards in kick returns.
This year D.J. Woods only had two such games.
I am not piling on D.J. Woods here, that is not my intention. All I am trying to do is illustrate how much of a difference having a dynamic play maker in the kicking game can mean to a team and a program. DJ has shown flashes of the ability to return kicks and punts very well, but the consistency was lacking this year in many respects *cough* fumble *cough*.
The kick coverage was surprisingly good this season. It wasn't exactly perfect, part of those issues go back to depth. When a team is as thin as UC was this year at most positions special teams are going to take a big hit. It's no secret that the teams who perform best in the kicking game are those who play multiple starters in special teams roles. UC didn't do that, almost at all this year. And it has nothing to do with Butch Jones's philosophy. UC simply could chance it. As a result the coverage teams were comprised of the very young, and the (relatively) very old. To be honest I thought that the kick coverage this year was worse than it really was when I looked at the stats. I looked at the Big East rankings for the two categories that deal with kick coverage, opponent Punt and Kick Return. For the 2007 through 2009 number I just took an average of the Big East finish in each category.
|Year||Kick Coverage||Punt Coverage|
The last two areas I want to touch on was the solid performances this season by both the kicking specialists this season. Jake Rogers had his best season as a Bearcat in my opinion. On the year he converted on 11 of his 14 field goal attempts, good for 78 per cent, by far the highest of his career. The good ship Rogers hasn't always been the steadiest of kickers in his tenure at UC but he has come through with some clutch kicks in his time.
It is hard to get excited about a punter, but Pat O'Donnell has a Huberesque quality to him. On the year he averaged 41.88 yards per punt, good for second in the Big East. But he was also pretty damn consistent as well, he averaged over 40 yards per kick in 9 of the 12 games with a high of 49 in the Oklahoma game. O'Donnell has some areas to work on, most notably the coffin corner. But a punter that allows 81 yards of returns for an entire season deserves some props.
Overall I would give the special teams a C for the year. I am pretty happy with the way the punting game worked out. Jake Rogers was solid, not spectacular kicking. The coverage teams were decent as well, but the lack of big plays from the return game is pretty disheartening. You have to hope that within this recruiting class Butch Jones has found a dynamic return man because there doesn't seem to be one on the roster.