Different approaches to special teams
By RONNIE WOODWARD
The Daily Reflector
Friday, November 8, 2019
Special teams has been a bright spot for an East Carolina football team still stuck at three wins, while SMU has built an 8-1 record despite inconsistency and an unconventional approach to kicking.
A costly play in the Mustangs' 54-48 loss at Memphis last week was Antonio Gibson's 97-yard kickoff return to begin the second half for Memphis. Gibson finished with 386 all-purpose yards for the most by any player in the country this season.
But most notable about the Mustangs' kicking units is that starting safety Trevor Denbow serves also their starting punter. He uses a line-drive, rugby-style kick, and even starting quarterback Shane Buechele sometimes elects to pooch punt.
"Early in the year they were using a traditional punter, but I think it comes down to a very good football coach (Sonny Dykes) finding creative ways to give his team an opportunity," said ECU coach Mike Houston, whose team plays at SMU on Saturday. "The scheme they are using puts some stress on you. You have to be careful with that low, line-drive punt. You don't want the ball bouncing off somebody's back or helmet and then it's a live ball and you turn it over."
Denbow, who is fifth on the team in tackles, is averaging 39.1 yards per punt. Five have traveled at least 50 yards.
For ECU, junior kicker Jake Verity is 19-for-23 on field goals for another standout campaign as a Lou Groza Award semifinalist. Jonn Young is averaging 41 yards per punt.
Tyler Snead is the Pirates' lead return man on kickoffs and punts, most notably returning a kick 100 yards for a touchdown two weeks ago against South Florida. He also had a long return versus N.C. State nullified by a penalty.
Dykes said not kicking it far enough for touchbacks has been part of the problem with SMU's kickoff return coverage.
"It's something that has been an issue for us," he said. "When you are kicking off as much as we are -- eight or nine times a game -- you have to do a good job covering. Right now we are struggling to have enough depth to be able to do that effectively. ... It made a difference in the game (versus Memphis), so we have to get that improved."
SMU's overall tendency for high-scoring contests affects all of its defensive and special teams units. Pirate offensive coordinator Donnie Kirkpatrick said ECU is expecting to see an aggressive SMU squad.
"They play the style of defense that fits their style of offense," Kirkpatrick said. "They have a lot of takeaways and a lot of tackles for loss. They probably go against each other a lot (in practice), and they are probably very good at the pass rush because I understand they throw it very well. The other thing and an issue that causes trouble is they play a lot of guys."
Contact Ronnie Woodward at email@example.com, 252-329-9592 and follow @RonnieW11 on Twitter.