In every season but one under Bob Stoops, the Oklahoma Sooners have been one of the top 20 programs in the nation in special teams play.
In 2008, however, the special teams weren't so “special.”
What went wrong? How can one team go from being fearless at special teams play to being the laughing stock of the FBS programs?
Well, as most football enthusiasts know, special teams takes special dedication, discipline, and passion to play.
Not only do most teams place their starters on special teams, but they must play with a disciplined and ruthless abandon.
On kick-off return defense, they must stay in their designated lanes, same with punt return defense. Players can't just kick the ball and go straight for the runner at whatever angle they wish.
In 14 games a season ago, Oklahoma kicked off 122 times with just 15 touch backs. They kicked the ball out of bounds, deep onside, or failed at an onside kick four times. This left OU having to cover 103 returns, the most in the nation (Tulsa was second at 94). They also allowed four kick offs to be returned for touchdowns, which was also the most in the country.
The coaches know that they must do a better job of preparing and playing the right guys.
“I spent more time this year during the off time studying other people, seeing what they do, seeing what we can do better in regards to scheme and personnel,” said Chris Wilson, OU special teams coordinator.
“It's been one of the big things we've focused on. We went to see the Saints. We've been able to study Alabama a little bit. We had a chance to see some people who've done it fairly decent. And then I went back and studied some opponents who were really good in our conference.”
Who will be playing on the special teams?
“It's guys wanting to be on the team, realizing it is called special teams for a reason," Wilson continued. “It's got to be one of those things where guys go, 'Hey, every starter should want to be on that team.' It shows the character of our football team.”
Until the season starts, we will not know if Oklahoma has improved. But with at least another year of experience under most of their belts, the players' attitudes will be different.
Oklahoma boasted a kicker in sophomore Jimmy Stevens that was not called upon much. He kicked just 12 field goals last season. Stevens made just eight of those field goal attempts, with his longest being just 42 yards.
In the fall camp, Stevens has shown a lot of improvement with accuracy and range. In doing so, he has solidified his job status.
Last season, Stevens was also the kicker after OU scored one of their many touchdowns. Stevens went 94 of 99 in the PAT aspect of his game.
The punter from last year is now gone. So who will replace Matthew Mooreland?
Coming into the fall camp, the position was still a toss up, with redshirt freshman Tress Way and incoming JUCO transfer Cam Kenney battling for the position.
Though Kenney impressed fans and coaches alike, Way has been absolutely stellar in the fall camp, booting balls with massive hang time and 45-plus yards down the field.
This has all but shut the door on Kenney. If Way struggles in games, then at least Stoops knows he has a big leg replacement.
Returning kicks and punts is no guarantee from one season to the next. However, it seems that sophomore Ryan Broyles and junior Dominique Franks will be doing the honors when Oklahoma travels to Dallas to take on BYU and begin its season.
Deep snapper for punts will most likely be sophomore James Winchester, while senior Ben Hampton will most likely be the deep snapper on PAT and field goals.
In between these players will be starters and players that want to get on the field.
As long as Oklahoma can stay disciplined and get the right guys on the field, the special teams play should vastly improve.