Of the three siblings that make up the phases of the game family, special teams is the one most overlooked by the casual fan. It also is an area of the game that has been changing the most, both at the professional and collegiate levels in recent years. The yard line for extra points was pushed back in the NFL and the idea of adjusting or eliminating kickoffs altogether is a common discussion as better safety measures continue to be developed and evaluated.
For now, special teams is still an integral part of the game, and therefore, the Cincinnati Bearcats need to take stock of where they stand as the 2016 season approaches.
Shaq Washington and Kirk Willis didn’t play similar positions, but each player’s departure will make life a bit more difficult for the Bearcats’ special teams efforts.
Washington was a receiver first of course, but his work in the return game was important as well. Of the 15 punt returns made by a Bearcat in 2015, Washington was responsible for 13. He amassed 134 yards on those returns, including a 69-yard run-back.
On the other side of the football world position-wise, Willis served as the long-snapper for the Bearcats and played in all 13 games during the 2016 season. His chemistry with punter Sam Geraci will need to be replicated by someone else this year.
At least UC can take solace in the fact that half of the Willis/Geraci combination is back, with the 6’4” junior Geraci back to handle the punting duties. He ranked second in the American Athletic Conference with 46.3 yards per punt last season, including 17 kicks of more than 50 yards. He also recorded five touchbacks and 21 kicks inside the 20-yard line.
Placekicking duties will remain in the hands (or feet, more accurately) of Andrew Gantz. The junior has been the Bearcats’ full-time kicker for the past two seasons, earning second-team All-AAC honors as a freshman and last year as a sophomore. In 2016, he ranked third among kickers and sixth overall in the AAC in scoring (112 points), knocking down 21-of-27 field goal attempts and 49-of-50 PATs. In addition, he handled all but one of the team’s 86 kickoffs, averaging 62.8 yards per kick while recording 31 touchbacks. Few teams in the country have such a reliable kicker, which is why Gantz was included on the watch list for the Lou Groza Award.
A number of the players that were tasked with returning kicks are back as well. Mike Boone got the most worst in that regard, returning 17 kickoffs. Kahlil Lewis (19.9 yards per return), Johnny Holton (22.0) and Tion Green (23.2) all returned at least six as well. All but Holton are back, although increased roles on offense for Lewis, who is part of a largely unproven group of receivers, as well as Boone and Green could mean fewer times out on special teams.
Its tough to really say who is new on special teams, as a number of younger players looking for playing time will likely fill in at some point either in the return game or on field goals and extra points.
Someone that is most certainly new and will be working heavily with the unit is Ty Linder, the new special teams coordinator. A former staffer with Tommy Tuberville at Texas Tech, Linder was most recently the special teams coordinator at TCU.
Additionally, juniors Jon Vincent and Kyle Curtis are not exactly new, but they will be the likely replacements for Willis at long snapper.