“Special Teams, Be Special!”
No Mike Bellotti pep talk was complete without that phrase. Don’t expect much to change under Chip Kelly.
While this year’s special teams units have some large question marks, they also provide some hope.
Gone are kickers Matt Evensen (graduation) and Daniel Padilla (transfer), punter Josh Syria, and punt returner Jairus Byrd.
In steps highly recruited kicker Mike Bowlin (Scout.com No. 3 kicker) and U.S. Army All-American punter, Jackson Rice (Scout.com No. 1 punter).
Also returning are incumbent kicker Morgan Flint and 2008’s backup punter, Tim Taylor.
Flint, a senior from Bend, took over the kicking duties half-way through the season, finishing perfect on PAT’s (28-28) and hitting seven of nine field goals (long of 39 yards).
While he may not have the strongest of legs, he showed consistent form.
Flint will have to improve his distance if he wants to hold off Bowlin. Bowlin will probably open the season as the Duck’s kickoff specialist, and very well could finish the season as the starting kicker.
At punter, the job appears to be Rice’s to lose. The son of former NFL punter Mike Rice, averaged 47.6 yards per punt last season at Campolindo HS (Moraga, CA), winning the 2008-09 Maxwell Award for the best senior punter.
Jairus Byrd’s decision to bypass his senior season for the NFL, not only depleted Oregon of one of the top corners in the nation, but also of one of the top punts returners. Last season Byrd averaged 12.3 yards per return (3rd in Pac-10) and one important touchdown versus Purdue.
Backup punt returner, Aaron Pflugrad also left the program this spring after his father was not retained as wide receiver’s coach (transfer to ASU).
There are way too many candidates to speculate on whom will return punts this season for the Ducks. You could put all of the wide receivers, running backs and defensive backs name in a hat and pick one—as almost all have experience returning kicks in high school.
The Ducks have much more experience at kickoff return specialist. Walter Thurmond III also finished third in the Pac-10 in kickoff returns (25.1 avg.). His return to open the second half of the Holiday Bowl started the Ducks as they rolled off 35 second half points.
Joining Thurmond on the return team at the end of last season was speedster Jamere Holland. Holland finished the season returning nine kicks for a 17.5 yard average.
Andre Crenshaw, Talmadge Jackson III, and Remene Alston all have also returned kickoffs during their career at Oregon.
The coverage units also figure to be strong as the Ducks return a lot of key contributors from last season. Also, Duck players wear a badge of pride when named to one of these teams, so the competition during practice is often fierce and spirited. This is one of the main reason you will see a lot of starting offensive and defensive players on these units.
Perhaps the key returner for Oregon this season is special teams coach Tom Osborne. With 29 years of coaching experience, Osborne was the 2003 American Football magazine Special Teams Coach of the Year.
As long as Osborne is coaching the unit, Duck fans expect the special teams to “be special.”