Brooks: Special Teams Benefit From New Approach
(Eighth in a series of position-by-position previews of the 2013 Buffs to be posted on CUBuffs.com during preseason camp. Today: Special teams)
BOULDER - For far too long during football practices at Colorado and elsewhere, punters and placekickers were innocent by-standers - innocent from the standpoint that their long periods of inactivity had received indirect approval from the head coach.
In short, they worked some then mostly watched. It was just the way it was. The emphasis at CU is now on was. Entering a season that the university hopes leads to dramatic change in the football program, change already is evident in Mike MacIntyre's approach to special teams.
After he was named CU's head coach last December, MacIntyre's final hire nearly two months later was Toby Neinas as special teams coordinator. That's how Neinas' job description reads - not special teams/tight ends coach, special teams/safeties coach, etc.
It's a rarity for CU. It's also very, very early, but it's working.
"It's been hugely beneficial to us . . . you get way more efficient work done," junior placekicker Will Oliver said. "There's less of the typical 'specialists hanging around doing nothing and watching the team practice.'"
"There's more of a direction and more structure for us now," junior punter Darragh O'Neill added. Last camp there were no punter- or kicker-specific drills, said O'Neill, "because we really didn't know what to do. Now we do those for half an hour or 45 minutes every single day."
The other half of the special teams work - coverage and return - receives equal attention, with Neinas receiving help from director of quality control Omar Young. And MacIntyre often assists in coverage/return work and special teams as a whole. He has a keen interest in it, and Neinas says his hiring offers proof of that.
"I think it's a credit to the leadership of the program that he's willing to invest one of his nine guys (full-time assistants) to do that," Neinas said.
MacIntyre's approach with Neinas when Neinas was interviewing was that he didn't want the special teamers to feel neglected. "So we're trying to train them as football players as well as specialists," Neinas said. Thus, football fundamentals are stressed as well as those specific to special teams.
Said Neinas: "I hope it's helped; we'll soon see."
For O'Neill, the benefits were immediate. Neinas has reduced O'Neill's number of punts per practice. "In the last couple of years in fall camp I would kick until my leg was almost falling off in some practices," O'Neill said.
"It's good to have a coach there to say, 'Hey, you're only kicking 20 balls today. I'm not allowing you to kick another one.' He's making sure each rep is good; you definitely take each rep more seriously because you know you're not going to get as many that day. It's helped out a lot in terms of me being able to keep the leg fresh."
When the 2012 season started he was OK, but O'Neill believed that fall camp wasn't as productive because of early fatigue. This August, he has been to work on details to fine tune his punting. "In this fall camp, instead of kicking away as much as possible, I've been able to work on some small things each day, which helps a lot," he said.
Last camp there were no punter- or kicker-specific drills, said O'Neill, "because we really didn't know what to do. Now we do those for half an hour or 45 minutes every single day."
During the Buffs' five two-a-day practices - the final two-a-day was Wednesday - the second practice was almost exclusively devoted to special teams work. "We're literally doing something the entire 21/2-3 hours we're out here," Oliver said. "It's gotten us a lot more work, and the new kids who haven't had much (special teams) coaching are getting it too."
Both O'Neill and Oliver had solid 2012 seasons but the objective always is improvement. O'Neill's net punting average last season was 39.2 yards, with 60.5 percent of his kicks not returned. Oliver was good on all 28 of his extra point attempts as well as six of his eight field goal tries.
Oliver's goal is to be "guaranteed points -- that's the best thing I can do for the team," he said. "When we get in a certain range - and I'm trying to increase that as much as I can - I want them to be able to know that we're not out there on a crap shoot, saying a prayer that it's going to end up between the 'Big H,' as they say.
"I want to put consistency in everything and focus on providing some stability. Going into the season there are a lot of unknowns and ideally my personal goal is to not be one of those unknowns."
Oliver said the range of his field goals has increased, and "anywhere inside 55 (yards) I'm feeling comfortable." His long kick last season was 37 yards, and he was four-of-five from 30 to 39 yards. But Neinas isn't ready to promise that when the Buffs cross mid-field, they begin thinking of Oliver.
"We are going back further, but I don't know how many 55-yard field goal attempts you'll see us take a shot at," he said. "We may, if conditions are right or situation dictates. But in that situation you sometimes have the opportunity to pin (with a punt) and put your defense on the field and hope they can get the ball back . . . point, serve so to speak. But if needed, it's always nice to have that. I certainly think we're in the high 40s (in range). I can see that."
With Oliver; O'Neill, who was included on the Ray Guy preseason watch list for punters; kicker Justin Castor and snapper Ryan Iverson on the roster, Neinas conceded he inherited a talented group and called himself "fortunate . . . Castor and Iverson embrace their roles and do it at a high level of efficiency, which is what you look for in the operation of a kick or a punt."
Iverson snaps on punts and placement attempts. In addition to fielding his laser-like punt snaps, O'Neill is Oliver's holder - catching and pinning Iverson's short snaps. "I honestly think he's one of the best in the country; I have a lot of trust in him," O'Neill said. "He'll definitely get a shot in the NFL next year. With that speed and strength (on his snaps) it's pretty rare. He gets the ball back so quick every time. It gives you peace of mind having him up there."
Neinas' critique of Iverson didn't drift from that: "He's really good and extremely consistent. His accuracy is well above average in my opinion. And I really like him in coverage; that's a bonus. You don't have to have that. You want him to snap and do a good job. But the fact that he's not a wash in coverage is a big, big plus."
The refinement that O'Neill has been working on has included the angle of his drop and how his toe points in coming through the ball on his punts. Taped practice work is reviewed daily for an hour, "And that's pretty huge right there," he said. "You have your coach's input and guys critiquing you peer-to-peer."
No major overhaul from Neinas was necessary for O'Neill, who might be among the best overall athletes in the country at his position. In the off-season, O'Neill worked on strength and flexibility and punted three or four times a week.
Oliver said the main tweak in his style has been adjusting how far his right leg swung across his body when he kicks: "I used to come really far across my body, like a soccer style, and swing completely across." The result was less of his momentum sending the ball straight toward the goalposts, resulting in greater possibility for a drift in either direction.
Neinas, said Oliver, "pretty much pushed me out of my comfort zone, but now I'm back into my comfort zone - a new comfort zone - going much more forward to my target. It's added a lot of power to my field goals, a lot of height. It's really improved my kickoffs, too."
Spending a spring with Neinas was critical, Oliver said, because "you've got to buy in obviously before you make the changes and it takes time. I'm glad we had spring ball and the summer to get it going. Otherwise, with too little time before the season you kind of would run into, 'Uh oh, I need a ball to go between the uprights and I don't care how it goes.'"
A majority of FBS teams try to punt directionally and Neinas said the Buffs will be among that number: "It's very much the norm because specialists now are so gifted it's not a big deal for them to do it. But you have to avoid tendencies. There will be times when we directional punt in a way that people might scratch their heads about. If (opponents) are loading up on one side of the field on us, we have to do something to address that. Occasionally we'll punt away from returns, but always trying to push our coverage to the ball."
Neinas hasn't settled on a kickoff specialist and will eventually choose between Oliver and Castor before the Buffs open on Sept. 1 vs. Colorado State. Also to be settled on before then are a backup punter - Oliver and almost everyone else is in the mix - and a kickoff return specialist.
Sophomore receiver Nelson Spruce is the choice to open as punt returner. A decision on KOR duties likely will be made "by committee" during the game, according to MacIntyre. Last season's top returners - Kenneth Crawley on punts, Marques Mosley on kickoffs - are back, and others are in the running.
Settling on coverage/protection personnel and tweaking schemes also remains a work in progress, mainly because of the game speed of those units. Said Neinas: "It's hard to open the season as a KOR team because it's difficult to simulate the speed at which those 10 dudes are running for their lives when they're coming down on you. That's hard to simulate in practice."
THE INSIDE LOOK AT . . .
Coach: Toby Neinas, first season on CU staff
Returning starters: P Darragh O'Neill, Jr.; PK Will Oliver, Jr.; LS/SS Ryan Iverson, Sr.; PR Kenneth Crawley, So.; KOR Marques Mosley, So.
Returnees: PK Justin Castor, Sr.; LS/SS Keegan Lamar, So.; KOR Donta Abron, So.; KOR Jeffery Hall, So.
Newcomers: LS/SS Blake Allen, Fr.; LS/SS Trevor Carter, Fr-RS; PK Chris Graham, Fr.; PK/P Diego Gonzalez, Fr.
Key losses: None
Stat line: Oliver led the team in scoring last season with 46 points (6-of-8 FGs, 28-of-28 PATs); O'Neill averaged 39.3 yards a punt.
Bottom line: Returning veterans in punting, placekicking and snapping, the Buffs should be strong in the kicking game. That said, the general hope will be that no player among that threesome is overworked this season - with the exception of Oliver kicking PATs and Iverson snapping for them. With the August camp emphasis MacIntyre has put on special teams, Neinas expects improvement from punt/kick coverage and both return teams. The Buffs were 11th in the Pac-12 (96th nationally) last season in punt returns, eighth (71st nationally) in kickoff returns. That leaves plenty of room for improvement in both categories.