Part Eight in an eight part series previewing the 2006 Kentucky Football Team.
Burton, Little and Smith: Many happy returns?
When considering the special teams portion of the 2006 Kentucky football Cats, it is difficult at first to determine whether this unit should be categorized as a glaring weakness or the team’s most proven strength. This is the case because, in some ways, it appears that the UK special teams unit is simultaneously both. There are clearly questions. Who will replace reliable place-kicker Taylor Begley, who seemed to have taken over the kicking duties for the Cats just after George Blanda headed off to the NFL? Will punter Tim Masthay, who suffered through a roller coaster freshman season, provide consistency in 2006? Can the punt and kick protection problems that marred the Spring Game be corrected? Contrasted with these very reasonable questions are some very definitive answers. When it comes to returning kickoffs and punts, the Cats take a backseat to no one. Kentucky was the only team in the nation to finish in the top five in both punt returns and kickoff returns in 2005. (3rd in punt returns at 17.2 per punt return, and 4th in kickoff returns at 26.4 per kick return.) Further, Steve Ortmayer’s unit is no slouch at covering or blocking kicks either. (15 blocked kicks in 2004 and 2005.) With all that said, Kentucky may not be quite ready to be named Virginia Tech West, but it is safe to say that the special teams have been light years ahead of a shaky offense and defense in the Rich Brooks era. If the Cats are to get where they want to get this season, and dare we say postseason, special teams will no doubt again play a large role.
J.J. Housley, 5-10, 186 So., Hazard, Ky. (Hazard)
According to Rich Brook’s Monday press conference, Housley is currently the starting kicker for the Louisville game. Only collegiate experience is one field goal in Kentucky JV game in 2005. Connected on both PAT’s in the Spring Game.
Lones Seiber, 5-8, 180 Fr., Knoxville, Tn. (Central)
First Team All State in Tennessee. Big leg evidenced by 96% of kickoffs going for touchbacks. Figured to be starting kicker after signing with Cats, but leg injury suffered in car wreck forced Seiber to miss most of camp. Now back and competing for starting job.
Brian Scott, 5-11, 190 Jr., Morehead, Ky. (Rowan County)
Transfer from Davidson College where he handled kickoffs in 2004. Kicked one successful extra point in as many tries in 2005 UK JV Game.
Tim Masthay, 6-2, 200 So., Murray, Ky. (Murray)
Played in all 11 games in 2006, averaging 36.4 yards per punt. Will handle kickoff duties in 2006, as he did 14 times in 2005. Phenomenal all around athlete. Was First Team All State senior season in football. Along with kicking duties, had over 1000 yards receiving. Also, First Team All State in soccer, First Team All Region in baseball as a pitcher and center fielder, and averaged 18 points per game in basketball.
Kris Kessler, 5-11, 190 Sr., Lake Mary, Fla. (Lake Mary)
Transfer from Central Florida. No varsity punting experience, but had three punts for a 43 yard average in JV game.
Jason Dickerson, 6-1, 245 Sr., Elizabethtown, Ky. (Elizabethtown)
Has been Kentucky long snapper since the middle of the 2003 season.
Keenan Burton, 6-2, 195 Jr., Louisville, Ky. (Dupont Manual)
Returned only five punts for Cats in 2005, but averaged an amazing 36.6 yards per return.
Alfonso Smith, 6-2, 190 RSFr, Louisville, Ky. (Waggener)
Coaches have to find a way to get the ball into the hands of the explosive Smith. With Little and Dixon in front of him on the running back depth chart, kickoff returns may be the most natural way. Speed demonstrated by winning the 100 meters and 4 x 100 meter relay at the state track meet as a senior.
Tony Dixon, 5-10, 190 So., Parrish, Al. (Parrish)
Like Smith, Dixon is a burner who the coaches want to involve in the game plan. Speed and shiftiness should result in success in return game.
David Jones, 5-10, 180 So., Huddy, Ky. (Belfry)
Returned 15 kickoffs in 2005 for 328 yards, with an average of 21.9. Needs to tighten up ball security after some fumble problems in 2005.
*Although not listed on the depth chart by the staff, it is entirely possible that Rafael Little may be used in a big spot. In limited action last year, averaged 44.3 yards on 3 kickoff returns with 1 touchdown.
Rafael Little, 5-11, 195 Jr., Anderson, S.C. (T.L. Hanna)
Finished 5th nationally in 2005 with 16.9 yards per punt return on 21 returns.
Keenan Burton (see above)
Returned one punt in 2005 for 30 yards.
Dicky Lyons, Jr., 5-11, 190 So., New Orleans, La. (Holy Cross)
Son of legendary UK returner showed signs of following in father’s footsteps as a true freshman in 2004 before being injured. Averaged 29.3 yards on 5 kickoff returns. Only averaged 4.6 yards per punt return, but had several long returns called back for penalties.
Career has come to a screeching halt since. Now healthy, will boost Cats’ already solid return game.
If the Cats have excelled at anything in the Rich Brooks era, it has been special teams. For this trend to continue, either Housley or Seiber must be a dependable option at kicker. Look for Masthay to make a big move in his second year on the job. Clearly, if an indispensable player such as Keenan Burton or Rafael Little gets injured returning a kick, the coaches will get murdered in Message Board Land. However, for Kentucky to be competitive, it must take every opportunity to get the ball in the hands of its playmakers. Recent history shows that guys like Burton and Little know what to do with it when it gets there.