Part eight in an eight part series previewing the 2013 Kentucky Football Wildcats.
Won’t be long now…
Of all the ink that has been spilled in this preseason previewing, analyzing and generally dissecting the upcoming Kentucky football season, almost none has been used to detail the Kentucky special teams. Of course, this is not really unexpected. Fans tend to gravitate much more towards who the starting quarterback will be than who will be on the first team punt coverage unit. Still, the lack of preseason hype should not be confused with insignificance of the subject. To a man, football coaches will tell you that excellent special teams are an enormous component to winning football. That should be considered good news for the Cats, who are closer to competing in the areas of special teams than either offense or defense at this point in the Mark Stoops era.
Kentucky’s resurgence in the Rich Brooks era was in many ways a product of special teams play. Brooks, and then special teams coordinator Steve Ortmayer, put great emphasis on special teams and the “hidden yards” that are found in each phase. Though solid in the areas of kicking, punting and coverage, the area in which the Cats truly excelled in the Brooks era was the return game. In 2003, Derek Abney, world’s fastest civil engineering major, led the nation in kickoff returns on his way to tying the national record for most kick return touchdowns in a career (8). In 2005, Kentucky ranked in the top five nationally in both punt returns and kickoff returns. The Cats were again top ten in both categories in 2006, and led the nation in punt return yardage. In 2008, Kentucky ranked third nationally in kickoff returns. This special teams excellence leveled the playing field for Kentucky when the overall talent of the Kentucky roster did not match high end SEC opponents. Historic Rich Brooks wins like those over LSU, Auburn and Georgia were secured, in part, by Brooks’ investment in special teams.
As Kentucky slipped in terms of overall football success in recent years, so did the play of the special teams. In 2012, Kentucky finished 10th in the Southeastern Conference in kickoff returns and 11th in punt returns. Mark Stoops knows that to improve the overall product on the field, drastic progress needs to be made in this area. The head coach has assured special teams coordinator Bradley Dale Peveto that he has free reign to choose any offensive or defensive player he needs, to include starters, to rebuild a truly special teams unit at Kentucky.
Joe Mansour 6-2, 189 Sr., LaGrange, GA
Landon Foster 6-1, 208 So., Franklin, TN
Tanner Blain 6-2, 197 Fr.RS, Lindenhusrt, IL
Max Strong 5-11, 187 Fr.RS, Louisville, KY (Trinity)
*Austin MacGinnis 5-10, 175 Fr., Prattville, AL (true freshmen not included in official depth chart.)
George Blanda unexpected to win the placekicking job.
When Joe Mansour arrived on campus four years ago as a first team high school All American, he was expected to immediately become Kentucky’s next great placekicker. Instead, he has spent his first three years in Lexington relegated to the role of kickoff specialist. (A task in which Mansour has excelled, by the way.) Now, entering his senior season, Mansour is the leading candidate to at last become Kentucky’s primary placekicker. Despite the most recent official depth chart released by UK, which does not include true freshmen, his only real competition for the position appears to be a newcomer carrying the same lofty expectations that Mansour arrived with four years ago. Freshman Austin MacGinnis was regarded by both Rivals and 247 as a top three high school kicker nationally. But like Mansour, it appears MacGinnis may have to wait his turn before earning the job. Special Teams Coordinator Bradley Dale Peveto recently praised Mansour for his consistency during camp, and all but declared him to be the team’s featured kicker.
Landon Foster 6-1. 208 So., Franklin, TN
Joe Mansour 6-2, 189 Sr., LaGrange, GA
“Punter U” is alive and kicking. (That’s awful. Sorry.) Landon Foster started from the opener as a true freshman in 2012, and quickly (and somewhat depressingly) became one of Kentucky’s most valuable players. Foster averaged 42.9 yards per punt, and dropped 13 kicks inside the opponent’s twenty yard line. He was named Freshman All American for his efforts. Mansour will serve as the backup in case of injury, but Foster is as entrenched a starter as any player on the Kentucky roster.
As indicated above, Kentucky has a great legacy of return men that has unfortunately grown dormant since the departure of Randall Cobb. In the last decade, guys like Cobb, Derek Abney, Keenan Burton, Dicky Lyon, Jr, and Rafael Little have excelled at the highest collegiate level. With the renewed focus on special teams play, and a new infusion of explosive athletes in the fold, I fully believe that someone is about to take up the mantle of elite return specialist for the 2013 Cats.
Though no official depth charts have been released for possible return men, Peveto has stated that possible punt returners include returning veterans Demarco Robinson and Daryl Collins as well as junior college transfer Javess Blue and freshman Ryan Timmons. Each of these players are also being considered as candidates to return kickoffs in addition to Raymond Sanders, Dyshawn Mobley, JoJo Kemp, Jeff Badet and Marcus McWilson. Though the coaches have given no indication about who may lead for either job, Kentuckian Ryan Timmons, and his electric open-field running, seems to be a natural fit. (Ryan Timmons stat du jour: returned three kickoffs for Franklin County last year…scored touchdowns on all three.) I believe that the coaches will use special teams as an opportunity to allow Timmons to make plays as he transitions into the role of a full time receiver.
MISCELLANEOUS KICKING STUFF:
A frequently overlooked item by football prognosticators is the kicking operation aside from the kickers themselves: the long snapper and the holder. At least one major college game on the first weekend of football will be decided by an error by some otherwise anonymous player at one of these positions. Kentucky returns sophomore long snapper Kelly Mason, who snapped for both kicks and punts in 2012 and sophomore holder Jared Leet. Both handled their tasks efficiently in 2012, and both give Mark Stoops and company confidence that the kicking operation will run smoothly in 2013 and beyond.
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