Special teams is the third phase of football and it is the phase that is often unnoticed until something either goes horribly wrong or exceptionally well. Nobody is stoked about a team keeping an opponent from getting back to the 20 on a kickoff return, but people will certainly pay attention when that same team allows a kickoff return for a touchdown.
Fans of the Cincinnati Bearcats should be a bit more discerning about special teams because they have one of the best specialists in the country in punter James Smith. The junior from Australia has All-American potential after finding his way onto the All-American Athletic Conference first team the last two seasons.
However, for all of Smith’s brilliant work in the punting game, the Bearcats still aren’t a perfect squad when it comes to special teams. They ranked 108th nationally in special teams S&P+ last year and that means they can certainly improve in a few areas. Let’s take a look at the most critical ones.
The Bearcats tied for fourth in the AAC in scoring offense last season, averaging nearly 35 points per game. That was great. What wasn’t so great was their kicking game, which could have helped raise that scoring average even higher.
Freshman Cole Smith clearly had a tough go of it as the primary placekicker, making only 5-of-12 field goal attempts. Those five made field goals had UC ranked last in the conference. Smith struggled the most on kicks from beyond 30 yards (2-for-9) and his troubles cropped up at some rather inopportune times, such as when he missed three tries against Temple in an overtime loss. To be fair, two of his kicks were blocked during the season, but even if you take those out, his success rate was lacking. There are currently five kickers on the roster, so Smith will have some competition this season, but if he can shake off last year’s difficulties, he can help the Bearcats find success in this part of the game.
Limiting opponents on kickoffs is more of a team-wide endeavor and one the Bearcats really need to address. Among AAC teams, only UConn allowed a higher average of yards per kickoff return than the Bearcats, who allowed opponents to average 23.5 yards per return. That included a conference-high four kick returns of at least 50 yards. UC’s defense was good enough to overcome the solid field position opponents were able to gain from many of those kickoffs. However, even as we expect the defense to be great again, it would be nice if they could start further from the end zone that they are defending on a more regular basis.
While their opponents were able to return kicks rather effectively, the Bearcats didn’t answer in kind. You can blame some of it on a small sample size. Since UC had the best scoring defense in the AAC, foes didn’t often get a chance to kickoff, but when they did, the Bearcats averaged only 18 yards per return. All-conference safety James Wiggins was the team’s primary kick returner (13 returns, 20.9 yards per return) with running back Charles McClelland lending support as the second-most prolific returner (seven returns, 13.3 yards per return). It remains to be seen if they will retain the roles this season, but if they do, they’ll be leading the charge to give the Bearcats better starting field position.
The Bearcats didn’t just struggle at returning kickoffs either. They were also one of the worst teams in the AAC in punt returns, ranking 10th in the conference with a 5.27 yards per return average. They did tie for fourth in the number of returns of at least 20 yards (three), but those were few and far between. Wide receiver Aulden Knight returned all but one punt last season and we’ll see if any personnel changes are made in this area and if the Bearcats can improve on it as well.