There are three phases of a football game. Offense, defense and special teams. A lot of attention is paid to the first two, but special teams is not always given its due. It is a part of the game that plays a major role in field positioning and even if field goals and extra points don’t count for as much as the mighty touchdowns, they can still make or break a game or an entire season.
For the Cincinnati Bearcats, there is a real need to improve on special teams this year. They ranked 111th in the country in special teams S&P+ last season even with All-American Athletic Conference punter James Smith. Against some teams, improving will be easy but other squads are going to present a major challenge as well as an example to follow. Here are the three best special team units the Bearcats will match up against in 2018.
Although the Green Wave don’t have any major standout contributors on special teams, especially with the loss of top kick returner Sherman Badie, they are a well disciplined group that is greater than the sum of their parts. Tulane ranked seventh in the country in opponent kickoff returns a year ago and finished a respectable 37th in special teams S&P+.
In terms of specialists that will have an impact each week, kicker Merek Glover is the guy to watch. While he only attempted nine of the team’s total of 10 field goals last year, he made eight of those and also connected on 94.1 percent of his extra point attempts. Editor’s note: I forgot to add this in the original post. The one field goal he missed came in a pretty critical spot, of course.
Even though the Knights (barely) finished outside the top 50 teams in the country in special teams S&P+, they still put together a pretty solid season in 2017 and should be at least competent in this area. If everything goes right, they could be much more than that.
Matthew Wright is arguably the best kicker in the American Athletic Conference and made 80 of 81 extra point attempts a year ago. For that, he was named to the all-conference second team. With Emilio Nadelman gone at USF (at least as a player), Wright is an easy choice to move to the first team. Wright wasn’t the only UCF specialist on the all-AAC second team, as punter Mac Loudermilk was given a similar honor.
Perhaps UCF’s biggest strength is its ability to pick up yardage in return situations. The Knights ranked 10th in the country in kickoff return average and sixth in punt return average, adding three return touchdowns as well. Even if top kick returner Mike Hughes is off in the NFL now, the Knights will still find a way to excel.
Ohio is the only team that UC will face this season that had a top 25 special teams effort last year, at least based on special teams S&P+. Ranked 14th, the Bobcats were powered by talented kicker Louie Zervos. The redshirt junior made 15-of-18 field goal tries and 61-of-64 extra points in 2017. He has accounted for at least 100 points in back-to-back seasons and is a front runner for All-Mid-American Conference honors.
Ohio also boasts a solid punter in Michael Farkas and strong return options in Papi White and Julian Ross. In addition, the Bobcats ranked 11th in the country in opponent kickoff return average and 44th in opponent punt return average last year.