Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Big 12 [Print without images]

Thursday, November 20, 2008
OU's not-so-special special teams

By ESPN.com staff
ESPN.com

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

An extra week of work provided Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops with ample time to tweak his offense and defense as he prepares for Saturday's game against Texas Tech.

But his biggest area of concern has been a facet of the game that has caused him to break out in a cold sweat the last few weeks as he analyzes their struggles.

Oklahoma has a marvelous offensive machine and a potent defensive unit that has a knack for making big plays.

But the Sooners can't cover kicks, among other special teams maladies. There's no way to sugarcoat those facts as Stoops struggles with what collectively might be his most unproductive special teams unit in his coaching tenure.

"There are no magic words," Stoops told reporters last week. "You can't work it anymore than we have."

During the off week, the Sooners looked better in kick coverage. But Stoops can't be sure how his group will play until it takes the field for Saturday's showdown against Texas Tech.

The biggest concern has been kickoff coverage. Oklahoma allowed Cincinnati's Mardy Gilyard to return a kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown in the second game of the season. Jordan Shipley's 96-yard kickoff return for a touchdown kick-started the Longhorns' 45-35 comeback victory. And Texas A&M's Cyrus Gray returned a kick 98 yards for a touchdown in the Sooners' most recent game. Gray totaled a school-record 261 kickoff return yards.

Oklahoma ranks 108th nationally in kickoff return coverage, allowing 25.6 yards per return. The three kickoff returns by their opponents is tied with Tulsa for the most allowed by any FBS teams. Those concerns could be severe considering that Texas Tech ranks third in the conference with an average of 24.6 yards per kick return.

The Sooners have been able to gloss over those problems as they have cruised through most games this season. But defensive coordinator Brent Venables told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that the Sooners' kick coverage needs big improvement against the Red Raiders.

"We're just going to have to play better than we have on special teams," Venables told the Star-Telegram. "You can't afford to give Tech short field. Since we've started Big 12 play, we've given up a lot of short fields and it's led to six touchdowns.

"It's easy to manage when you are up by three or four touchdowns. But in a tight game it matters a great deal."

As do other elements of Oklahoma's special teams that have sputtered this season.

Punter Mike Knall has seen his per-punt average drop by nearly eight yards per kick. Knall averaged 43.7 yards per kick and is down to 35.8 yards per punt this season. The Sooners rank 93rd nationally in net punting. And Knall's critical botched run against Texas helped turn momentum around for the Longhorns in that game.

Mainly because of their propensity to score touchdowns, the Sooners haven't needed many critical field goals this season. But it has been a concern as Stoops shuffled kickers Jimmy Stevens and Matt Moreland in their most recent game.

Stevens hit a season-long 42-yarder against the Aggies, but has missed four extra points and three of his five attempts beyond 30 yards. After a 30-yard miss earlier in that game he was involved in a shouting match along the sidelines with 295-pound reserve defensive tackle Cordero Moore. At one point, Stevens could be seen grabbing Moore's face mask and shoving it before walking away.

Oklahoma defensive tackle Gerald McCoy defended the "tough love" given to Stevens along the sidelines during the A&M game. But he also noted that Stevens made his long kick after the confrontation.

"We are a team and we play as a team. And if one part of it isn't playing well, we've got to get it corrected," McCoy said. "If it takes us yelling at him or getting in his face, it's something we need to do. When he went back out, he made a long field goal. So maybe it worked."

Some newspaper pundits have even suggested that Stoops consider squib kicks at all times, or even purposely kicking the ball out of bounds. The loss in field position of starting at the opposing team's 40-yard line would be more advantageous than chancing another long return.

But Stoops has kept tweaking his special teams, hoping that extra attention will provide a breakthrough as the Sooners prepare for their most critical game of the season.

"We've worked it every day for the last two weeks," Stoops said. "It sure looks good in practice. I don't know ... but we didn't get to draft anybody else. We're just using the team we've had."