"Are you going to preview special teams? Because I need to know if I am going to have to cross my fingers and pray every time we kick this season. Nothing like feeling the entire season may be on the line when the kickoff team trot their happy asses out on the field."
Yes, I am going to preview special teams, which is what I'm doing right now. And, yes, you should still cross your fingers whenever OU kicks this year.
A few weeks back I wrote in a blog post for Phil Steele that special teams play was the single biggest issue for OU heading into 2009. The Sooners' special teams play will almost undoubtedly improve this season, but it's tough to imagine things getting much worse.
In 2008, kickoff coverage was particularly horrendous. The Sooners gave up four kickoff returns for touchdowns, dead last in the country in ‘08. They allowed an average of 23.8 yards per return, ranking 103rd in the nation. And if you think special teams isn't that big of a deal, you must be forgetting Jordan Shipley's kickoff return touchdown in the Red River Shootout.
Chris Wilson, who coaches OU's defensive ends and special teams, claims kickoff coverage has been a point of emphasis in the offseason. Look for some of OU's vaunted freshman class--guys like linebackers Tom Wort and Jaydan Bird--to get plenty of run. Both have developed reputation in their short time in Norman as vicious hitters ideal for open-field tackling.
There's also the little matter of who will be doing the actual kicking off this season. While a supposedly improved Jimmy Stevens has locked down field goal duties, the position of kickoff specialist remains up for grabs. Wilson has indicated newcomer Tress Way may have a slight lead for the job, but no official word has been given.
Hopefully the focus on improving kickoff coverage won't detract from working on the punting game, as the Sooners will be breaking in a replacement for the departed Michael Knall. One of the more intriguing names being bandied about during fall camp is juco transfer Cameron Kenney. Kenney, who appears to have the inside track for a starting receiver spot, is a former soccer star whose punting skills have turned heads early on. The prospect of Kenney taking off and running out of the punt formation could give opposing teams just one more wrinkle to worry about when facing the Sooners. What about a rugby-style, run-punt option call? Before I get too carried away, though, note that Bob Stoops will almost undoubtedly go with the best punters of those auditioning, and that sounds like Way at this point.
As far as the return game, Homerism has but one piece of unsolicited advice for Stoops et al: keep DeMarco Murray off the field. Look for some combination of Ryan Broyles, Dominique Franks, Kenney and possibly Chris Brown to handle kickoff returns, with Broyles or Franks taking care of punt return duties.