Special teams seem depressingly unimportant until things don't go as planned. Until you don't switch the field. Until you don't make the easy field goal or extra point. And until you put yourself in a bad spot with a holding penalty during a return. However, special teams has been a bright spot at times under Kliff Kingsbury. In 2013, special teams was on display like never before during the Oklahoma game. (Who could forget Coach Haverty pulling a fake punt RETURN against OU to get great field position, a recovered onside kick and blocked FG). In 2014, not as spectacular. Last season, it seemed that every big kick return or punt return was nullified by penalties and seemed to always put Texas Tech's offense in a tough position to score. The most frustrating part about this unit is they have the talent. From Jakeem Grant, Justin Stockton and Cameron Batson this unit should be a bright spot, not sore spot. Here is how the unit breaks down for the upcoming season.
Starter: David Brenner, Sr. (2L)
2nd String: Kyle Hefferon, So.
Starter: Taylor Symmank, Sr. (2L)
2nd String: Michael Barden, Fr (RS)
Starter: Taylor Symmank, Sr (2L)
2nd String: Clayton Hatfield, Fr (RS)
Starter: Jakeem Grant, Sr. (3L)
Starter: Justin Stockton, So. (2L)
Starter: Cameron Batson, So. (2L)
Second: Jakeem Grant, Sr. (3L)
Key Returning Starter:
Taylor Symmank. He first caught my attention during the UTEP game last year, with some absolutely booming kickoffs. Last year we didn't always see his leg on punts, averaging just 42.6 yards per punt, but the word out of Lubbock is Symmank may have the biggest leg in the country. In fact, to take advantage of his leg power, Special Teams Coordinator Darrin Chiaverini, has given Symmank an opportunity at place kicker. One which he has taken and will likely beat out redshirt freshman Clayton Hatfield. This is a welcome change at place kicker from Ryan Bustin's knuckle-curve. I'm still unsure of how Bustin got some to go through the uprights. Symmank might have the biggest leg at Tech since Alex Trlica. This will help take pressure off of the offense knowing they can get points from greater distances if the drive stalls. The good news is, Hatfield has a good leg as well and as a redshirt freshman he'll still have three years of eligibility moving forward.
Player To Watch:
Jakeem Grant. Grant is explosive, no doubt. However, as a senior and as the offense will almost certainly run through him, at what point will he stop returning kicks? I know, I know. Kingsbury wants to get his fastest player and biggest weapon as many touches as he can, but I have a bad feeling about exposing your most explosive playmaker to injury unnecessarily. Michael Crabtree returned kicks in 2008 and got banged up during the A&M game. It turned out to be a lingering injury that was further aggravated later in the season against Baylor. Though he was still the best player on the field, he was noticeably slower out of his cuts after that and it was a nagging injury even into his pro career. I think Kingsbury rolls the dice, but look for him to turn to Stockton and KeKe Coutee, Batson or another speedster to keep Grant in the offense and out of the training room.
Biggest Question Mark:
Can the penalties be curtailed? This is an explosive unit, but one that tends to try and do too much rather than understanding that most of Tech's returners can create their own space and make tacklers miss. When you look at the return stats, they seem awfully low compared to some of the terrific returns they had last year. A big point of emphasis for special teams has been consistency. Limit penalities, allow kick returners to make people miss, and be automatic in the kicking game (No missed XPs and No misses inside 35 yards). If Tech's ST unit can do this, look for something always exciting to happen on 4th down this season.
3. Jakeem Grant wants at least three kickoff returns to go for a touchdown. With only one last year, and plenty good returns called back, it'll be exciting to watch knowing that every time a returner touches the ball, they will be trying to take it to the house. Let the over/under talk begin.