Part eight in an eight part series previewing the 2010 Kentucky Football Wildcats: Special Teams
A great moment in UK special teams history.
It is exceedingly rare for a football team to change its identity significantly between the conclusion of Spring Practice and the beginning of Fall Camp. However, Kentucky did just that last month with the firing of long-time special teams coordinator Steve Ortmayer. No off-season move made by Coach Joker Phillips more illustrates his willingness to separate himself from the Brooks regime than his dismissal of Ortmayer, a trusted Brooks assistant for seven seasons at Kentucky.
The dismissal of Ortmayer, like all of Phillips’ staff changes, was based largely on recruiting. Greg Nord, brought in to fill his position on the staff, is a UK grad with a reputation as an ace recruiter with strong connections in Jefferson County established during his lengthy tenure as an assistant at U of L. He does not, however, possess Ortmayer’s football rÃ©sumÃ©. Ortmayer spent 25 years as an assistant and an executive in the NFL, including a stint as General Manager of the San Diego Chargers. His special teams at Kentucky were frequently record setting, as seen by the following.
2003 – Derek Abney led the SEC in kickoff returns.
2004 – UK set school record with 9 blocked kicks.
2005 – UK in the top 5 nationally in kickoff returns and punt returns
2006 – UK led the nation in punt returns and top 10 nationally in kickoff returns.
2007 – UK led nation in kickoff coverage.
2008 – UK led SEC in kickoff return average, net kickoff coverage and punting average.
2009 – Kicker Lones Seiber becomes school’s all-time leading scorer.
Despite this impressive list of accomplishments, Ortmayer was not without detractors. Kentucky had far too many kicks blocked in recent years, frequently in critical moments. Still, in terms of returns and coverage, Kentucky was consistently among the best in the nation for each of the last seven years under his watch. That special teams excellence, as much as anything else, led to Cats’ resurgence during the Brooks era. If Kentucky slips in that phase of the game in 2010, Phillips’ late summer staff move may prove to be one he regrets.
Ryan Tydlacka 6-1, 201 Jr. Louisville, KY (Trinity)
Joe Mansour 6-2, 181 Fr. LaGrange, Ga. (LaGrange)
Ryan Tydlacka – see above
Craig McIntosh 6-0, 199 So. Lexington, KY (Lex. Christian)
J.J. Helton 6-3, 226 Sr. Franklin, TN (Franklin)
Derrick Locke 5-9, 191 Sr. Hugo, OK (Hugo)
Randall Cobb 5-11, 186 Jr. Alcoa, TN (Alcoa)
Winston Guy 6-1, 215 Jr. Lexington, KY (Lex. Catholic)
Randall Cobb – see above
Gene McCaskill 6-0, 191 Jr. Chester, SC (Chester)
While Ortmayer certainly deserves a fair share of credit for the achievement of Kentucky’s special teams during his tenure with the Cats, the primary credit goes to Rich Brooks, who valued that phase of the game enough to put his best players on the field in all areas of the kicking game. Investing star players into special teams play can be a gamble, as seen by Derrick Locke blowing out his knee on a return in 2008, but the vast majority of the damage has been inflicted on Wildcat opponents in the manner of solid coverage and dynamic returns. Joker Phillips has made clear in the off-season that he intends to emphasize special teams to the same degree as his predecessor. That being the case, both Derrick Locke and Randall Cobb better get their rest now, because they won’t get much of it starting in September.
Provided Kentucky’s opponents cooperate, Locke will field the majority of the kickoffs in 2010. In 2009, Locke was third in the conference and fourteenth nationally with an average of 27.8 yards per kickoff return. Locke has two career 100 yard kickoff returns, including one last season against Kentucky’s 2010 opening day opponent. (Their name escapes me at the moment.) Cobb is no slouch himself on kickoff returns as evidenced by his 26.5 yard average per return last season, but his primary focus will be on returning punts. Cobb was third in the conference in punt return average last season at 12.8 yards per return with one return for touchdown. Winston Guy and Gene McCaskill will provide depth in the unlikely event that Cobb or Locke ever come out of a game in 2010.
THE NEW GUY
According to the official depth chart, punter Ryan Tydlacka is also listed as the starting placekicker. In related depth chart news, Tarvaris Jackson is presently listed as the Minnesota Vikings starting quarterback. It is clear that the coaches do not expect Tydlacka to do the placekicking when the Cats hit the field on September 4th. Instead, nearly everyone is assuming that true freshman Joe Mansour will be trotting out for the first extra point following Kentucky’s inevitable first possession touchdown at Louisville. Mansour, who just graduated from…you guessed it, LaGrange High School in Georgia, is a highly regarded kicker and punter, who made six field goals of over 50 yards during his high school career. If he can make the transition to the college game, Mansour will provide Kentucky consistency in the placekicking game for the first time in recent memory. (No offense, Lones.)
Long snappers are like referees. When they do their jobs well, you don’t notice them. J.J. Helton has been virtually invisible for three years now. Helton has snapped for punts since the latter part of the 2007 season, and added snapping for kicks last season. If all goes according to plan for Helton and the Cats, he will be totally ignored in 2010 as well.
Kentucky has boasted among the strongest overall special teams units in the country for nearly the last decade, and that trend does not look to end in 2010. Locke and Cobb are electrifying return men, and Joker has committed to feeding them the football at every opportunity. Tydlacka is a solid punter, having finished fifth in the SEC in net punting in 2009. Both the snapper and kickoff specialist from last season also return. Coaches are hoping the final piece of the puzzle is Mansour. If the freshman lives up to expectation, the Cats will upgrade at the position from 2009 despite replacing their all time leading scorer. (That brings up an interesting topic. All time leading scorer debate. Issel v. Seiber. Discuss.) All in all, it appears the special teams should live up to their name in 2010.
Next Up: Football time in the Bluegrass!