NORMAN, Okla. -- The importance of special teams in undeniable. The third phase of the game often goes unnoticed as talk of a team's offense and defense litter stories and dominate headlines.
Until special teams miscues occur, then those concerns tend to make a meteoric rise up the priority list.
Unnoticed is not a word that could be used to describe Oklahoma's special teams in the Sooners' 24-7 season-opening win over UTEP. Disappointing would be more accurate, especially considering that the special teams were expected to be a strength for OU in 2012.
The Sooners had a punt blocked and returned for the Miners' lone points of the game, allowed a field goal to be blocked and allowed 16.72 yards per punt return (excluding the 24-yard blocked punt return by Nathan Jeffery).
Yet it's not time to hit the panic button.
The Sooners know their special teams units most improve if they hope to compete for a national championship this fall.
"We know how important special teams are," senior defensive end R.J. Washington said. "You know what special teams will do to you and what kind of momentum that gives -- [it] gets the crowd into [the game]."
Fortunately for the Sooners, a portion of the miscues can be attributed to small things like poor communication or first-game jitters instead of foundational problems like players being overmatched or specialists mishitting the football on kickoffs, field goals and punts.
"It's little stuff, very minute stuff," said senior Jaydan Bird, who plays on multiple Sooners special teams units. "(For example) one person didn't get a check on the blocked punt. Just small stuff that is easily correctable. It's first-game stuff that we'll get corrected."
The punt returns can be attributed to poor pursuit angles and over aggressiveness by OU's coverage units, which often arrived at the returner out of control instead of under control with balance, so they could break down and make a tackle. Those issues can be cleaned up quickly. If similar things occur in ensuing weeks as Big 12 Conference play approaches, that's when the hand starts to move toward the panic button.
Meanwhile, Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops is not overly concerned with the play of the Sooners' special teamers as long as his squad learns from Saturday's mistakes and cleans up the execution on special teams.
"The kicking game, after the initial punt -- it was a situation where we checked our coverage, our protection up front and all 10 guys have it but one," he said. "And that's our fault. One way or another and we've got to be able to communicate that and get it blocked up. The rest of the day, we do block up and we're fine."
The blocked field goal of Michael Hunnicutt, one of the reasons for optimism about OU's special teams, wasn't the kicker's fault.
"The field goal, we just dropped (the ball)," Stoops said of punter Tress Way's hold on the play. "We had it all set and we just mishandled it setting it down. The rest of the game, it's all clean. Tress hasn't done that all spring, all fall and it's just one of those situations."
In addition, OU consistently won the field position battle as the Miners' average starting position was their own 21-yard line thanks in large part to Patrick O'Hara's kickoffs and Way's 46.4-yard per punt average.
The Sooners allowed just 16.5 yards on kickoff returns, potentially making touchbacks on kickoffs -- particularly with the new rule that places the ball on the 25-yard line -- less of a priority moving forward throughout the season.
"I was pleased, we really covered (kickoffs well)," Stoops said. "I've been watching all these early games, before we played, Thursday-Friday-Saturday, paying attention to how deep they're catching the ball and where they're getting it.
"Because it's hard to get it to the 25 when you're catching it in those letters. He was catching it in the letters and he didn't get it to the 25. Patrick had a lot of good hang time and the coverage was good. That was a positive thing."