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Pirate Notebook No. 394
Monday, Aug. 24, 2009

Denny O'Brien

Season may hinge on special teams

By Denny O'Brien
All Rights Reserved.

Special teams is the most overlooked detail when college football pundits release their annual preseason projections.

Poll the 119 head coaches in the NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision and you’ll find that it is arguably the most critical area in terms of dictating the outcome of two evenly-matched teams.

East Carolina coach Skip Holtz certainly subscribes to that theory. And after last season’s inconsistencies in the kicking game, he has placed special focus on it since the spring.

When Holtz outlined his goals for fall camp two of weeks ago, special teams improvement was listed higher than any facet of ECU’s offense or defense. He emphasized the importance of its sharpness given the ball-control approach the Pirates have taken with their offense.

The memory of last season’s finale almost assuredly factored into the urgency of fixing ECU’s special teams. In the Liberty Bowl against Kentucky, East Carolina was clearly the better team when either its offense or defense was on the field. And that was with many of the Pirates’ frontline players on the shelf with injuries.

But because the Pirates were so terribly sloppy on special teams, they let the otherwise inferior Wildcats spoil ECU’s vision of a ten-win season.

“Special teams played a huge role,” Holtz said following the Liberty Bowl. “I thought that Matt Dodge kicked the ball pretty inconsistently today from what he had been doing.

“We just didn’t get it done on special teams. I give Kentucky a lot of credit. They are No. 4, I believe, in the country in kickoff returns. They are a talented football team. Obviously that was the difference in the football game.”

It’s hard to argue with that logic when you consider these game-changing events:

 — With the momentum firmly in ECU’s favor, the Pirates watched Kentucky return specialist David Jones take the second half kickoff and sprint 99 yards untouched to narrow the score to 16-9.

 — After a 22-yard net punt, Kentucky needed only three plays to drive 26 yards to even the score at 16.

 — Following a 56-yard fumble return that pushed the Wildcats ahead of ECU, the Pirates received the ensuing kickoff with a knee carelessly planted on the one-yard line. It was the second-consecutive kickoff that an ECU player received with his knee on the one, but the first time replay officials caught it.

With East Carolina’s opener with Appalachian State fast approaching, so far much of the news about special teams hasn’t been encouraging. Preseason All-Conference USA kicker Ben Hartman’s status remains a question mark with a hip injury for which there apparently has been no remedy found to date.

You simply can’t place a value on the importance of an experienced kicker with Hartman’s resumé.

Though he’s prone to shank a routine shot from 38 yards with a ten-point lead, Hartman has proven himself glacier cool when the game is on the line. His five game-winners alone over the past two seasons — each of which occurred on national television — might be enough to earn an entry into the ECU Hall of Fame.

Because right now you’d have to rate him the greatest clutch kicker in ECU history.

With Hartman out, the Pirates have far more questions at the position than they do iron-clad solutions. Punter Matt Dodge, sophomore Ben Ryan, and freshman Matt Millisor haven’t proven they can consistently drill extra points during the regular season, let alone kick a game winner.

While the Pirates shouldn’t need one to beat Appalachian, they very well might in expected nail-biters at West Virginia and North Carolina.

Michael Bowman’s injury leaves another potential hole, what with his proven big-play ability in the kick return game. ECU might have no shortage of skill players to which it can turn — and perhaps there is a gem there somewhere — but there is no one on the roster who is a proven difference maker on kick returns.

That doesn’t mean Holtz and special teams coach Vernon Hargreaves won’t find a serviceable replacement for Bowman. Nor does it mean that one of the Pirates placekickers won’t emerge as a dependable threat.

And who knows, maybe the Pirates’ kickoff unit will perform markedly better than it did in 2008.

But there is no denying that special teams — almost every aspect if it — remains a question as the commencement of the season approaches. Finding positive answers could be the difference between an ordinary season and a special one.

E-mail Denny O'Brien.

Denny O'Brien's Archives

08/24/2009 02:20:00 AM

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