Eric Stephens (Running Back & Kickoff Returner / 5-8 / 182 / FR) :: To write that Stephens has been a god-send would be an understatement. Not that the Red Raiders were struggling in the kickoff return department (it's been Jamar Wall, Edward Britton and Shannon Woods in previous years), but there's been something missing . . . a certain spark in the kickoff return game where an opponent needed to fear that player. That something was Stephens, who ran his way to fourth in the conference in kickoff returns, averaging 25.90 per return. Stephens has yet to break a return for a touchdown, but he's been awfully close. The Spartans are 5th in the Big Ten in return yardage, averaging 22.02 per return.
Keshawn Martin (Wide Receiver & Kickoff Returner / 5-11 / 185 / SO) :: As good as Stephens has been for Texas Tech, Martin has been even better. Martin has only had 17 returns for the year (the kicked-off Glenn Winston was previously handling duties) but he's had two monster games, against Minnesota (4 returns for 176 yards and 1 TD) and (5 returns for 166 yards). Obviously those two games bumps up Martin's average, but he's still averaging 30.35 yards per return. This is going to be an intriguing storyline as the Red Raiders rank 2nd in the Big 12 in return yardage allowed, only 19.34 per return. That's close to a ten yard difference from what MSU is averaging and what the Red Raiders are allowing.
Improved Kickoff Returns: RB Eric Stephens has been a tremendous asset to this team as he's helped lead this team to 3rd in the Big 12 and 17th in the nation in kickoff returns, good for 24.48 per return. The Red Raiders were 7th in the conference in 2008 (22.20 per return) and 9th in the conference in 2007 (20.69). The Spartans are 5th in the Big Ten in kickoff returns allowed, 22.02 per return. This doesn't seem to be a strong point for Michigan St. and the Red Raiders have obviously made tremendous strides in this category.
The Kicking Games: Michigan St.'s PK Brett Swenson is pretty danged good, tied for 20th in the nation in field goals, 36th in the nation in scoring and leads his team in scoring at 7.8 points per game. For the year, Swenson mad 18 of 20 field goals and 40 of 41 extra points. The Red Raiders and PK Matthew Williams aren't that bad, sitting 4th in the conference at 81.8%, but that's only on 11 attempts, which is the fewest attempts in the conference (Baylor had 14). This is a huge improvement from 2008 where Texas Tech only managed 7 of 13 on field goals and there's no doubt that Williams impact on the team has been forgotten to a certain extent because he hasn't been asked to kick in a pressure situation this year, but he's also been pretty danged solid.
|Stats||41 Punts; 1,667 Yards; 40.66 Average|
When we talk about true freshmen who have stepped up their play, Erxleben's name doesn't necessarily come to mind. In fact, Erxleben is almost an afterthought, but the truth of the matter is that he helped solidify a position that struggled early. Prior to the season, incumbent punter Jonathan LaCour was suspended for the first four games of the year and during fall practices, kickoff specialist Donnie Carona was named as the starting punter. It became evident after the first three games that Carona was struggling to find consistency, with his last punt coming against Texas where he punted for 38 yards. In comes Erxleben, a true freshman, playing his first game in Austin and he calmly does his job, where he only averaged 38.5 yards per punt against UT, but there was a sense of consistency, which is a good thing to have from a punter. The fact that his name hasn't been mentioned is typically a good thing, and despite having to punt in some pressure situations, I can't complain with the job he's done thus far this year.