Aggies kicking bad habits - To reduce mistakes, A&M using starters on special teams
By RACHEL COHEN / The Dallas Morning News / Sunday, August 14, 2005
COLLEGE STATION, Texas – Texas A&M coaches would have been happy two years ago to see a punt returner field the ball cleanly and fall forward. That's not far off from what happened last season. The Aggies reduced the special teams mistakes that plagued them in 2003 but rarely helped themselves in the battle for field position.
A&M ranked in the bottom four of the Big 12 in punt and kickoff returns, net punting and kickoff coverage a year ago. So it's no surprise coaches have made improving special-teams play a priority this preseason. Senior receiver Jason Carter has noticed the emphasis reflected in their intensity level.
"They've made it a point," said Carter, who has added punt-blocking duties to his kickoff returning. "In meetings, they've said they put it on themselves that we were ranked so low."
Coach Dennis Franchione would like to see those numbers improve, but his greatest concern is minimizing major mistakes. Despite the progress the Aggies made last season, they committed significant special-teams miscues in each of their four late-season losses.
Still, even a slight improvement in net yardage can yield significant results. Special teams coach Mark Tommerdahl said that if a team gets the ball past its 20-yard line, its chances of scoring double. Past the 40-yard line, they quadruple.
Franchione plans to use more starters on special-teams units. He wants excellent athletes who can play physical and take their duties seriously. Veterans Jaxson Appel and Justin Warren are among the starters seeing more action on special teams.
"Three years ago when we started, there was a little bit of an attitude here that, well, that was for the backups," Franchione said, adding, "It's taken awhile to get that message into their heads."
Here's how A&M looks to improve in key areas:
The Aggies need a new punter after Jacob Young graduated. Coaches are pleased with the progress of redshirt freshman Richie Bean, whose inconsistency kept him off the field last year. His main competition, Justin Brantly, is an impressive athlete at 6-3, 218 pounds, but just a freshman. Franchione doesn't expect to pick a starter for a while.
Options include safeties Jordan Chambless and Japhus Brown, receiver L'Tydrick Riley, cornerback Marquis Carpenter and several freshman defensive backs. None returned punts last year. At 238 pounds, Riley is not a prototypical returner, but he has great hands and Franchione figures he'll be tough to tackle.
Running back Courtney Lewis, an electric returner in high school, has volunteered his services. But putting an elusive athlete back there hasn't been the problem for A&M. Franchione blames a lack of execution and physical blocking for the Aggies plummeting from 10th to 116th in the nation from 2003 to '04 in this area.
Tommerdahl said incumbent kickoff specialist Layne Neumann has always had good hang time, but coaches asked him to add 5 yards of length. "So far, so good," Tommerdahl said.