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Special teams not so special after all
Published 11/2/2011
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If you were like me, you shouted at the TV and threw your hands up in disgust when you saw Oregon’s DeAnthony Thomas run back a 93-yard kickoff return immediately after the Cougars had pulled within nine points late in the third quarter on Saturday.

It was the second straight game the Cougars have allowed a kickoff to be returned for a touchdown and the third time this season. They’ve allowed more touchdown returns on kickoffs than the rest of the conference combined as only Utah and USC have each had one returned the distance on them.

Like my title says, I’m the analytical fan, so I had to dive deeper into this problem and crunch some numbers. What I found was disappointing.

On the surface, it’s bad enough as the Cougars rank 12th in the conference in kickoff coverage net average, which is calculated by taking the yardage of the actual kick minus the yardage of the return. The Cougars also find themselves at the bottom with having only recorded one touchback.

But wait, there’s more.

I charted every kickoff of every Pac-12 team and discovered that only 14 percent of kickoffs by Washington State reach the end zone and are either downed or brought out. That’s the lowest percentage of any team.

To be fair, Oregon, a national powerhouse, has only had 15 percent of their kickoffs reach the end zone. But their kickoff coverage ranks in the upper half of the Pac-12, so they can mask those deficiencies.

Arizona finished No. 1 in my books as 59 percent of their kickoffs reach the end zone. UCLA finished a close second at 58 percent.

The most troubling thing about these numbers is that sophomore Andrew Furney has a strong leg, having booted a 51-yard field goal, and is five for five beyond 40 yards this year. He connected on two 50-plus yard field goals last season as well.

So why are the kicks not going the distance? Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems a lot simpler to kick a ball 70 yards from a kickoff set-up when you control the pace than a 40-yard field goal with rushers coming at you. I understand there are schemes that will ask the kicker to angle the ball a certain direction or to pooch it so a not-as-fast blocker will have to field it, but you’re giving up field position.

During Mike Price’s final two years as coach, walk-on Adam Holiday had one job: kickoffs. Drew Dunning did the field goals, Holiday handled the kickoffs – and boy did he ever.

His first year as a Coug, Holiday sent 52 of 80 kickoffs into the end zone, 35 of which were not returned.

Why can’t we do that? Are we really that thin across the board that we can’t sacrifice a spot for a booming kick off specialist? The current roster shows we have three kickers on the squad. Why do we or any team need three kickers?

The Cougars are one of three schools to currently have two former kickers playing in the NFL today: Jason Hanson of the Detroit Lions and Rian Lindell of the Buffalo Bills. Another kicker, Ryan Longwell, is also from the state of Washington and now plays with the Minnesota Vikings.

Furney has the potential to be next.

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