- Carter Strickland, Reporter, HornsNation
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AUSTIN, Texas -- The coaching staff decided to dive into the murky and rather deep waters of the Texas kicking game numbers during spring break.
The goal was to break down where the breakdowns existed, then analyze those measurements and lend them the proper weight.
"We've had really good visits with some consultants on the NFL level about our kicking game and we have had -- we've broken every phase down to a point even if we return the ball past the 40-yard line on kickoff returns, we scored 86 percent of the time,'' said Texas coach Mack Brown, who actually started to dabble in the numbers before the 10-day break. "So it tells you: We get a good kickoff return, we're going to score.''
There are plenty more telling stats, too -- such as being 81st in kickoff return defense and only 37th in kickoff returns, despite having an Olympian who just ran a 4.27 40 at the NFL combine as one of the returners, and missing 8 of 19 field goal attempts. So Texas can break down the numbers all it wants, but it doesn't take analytics or even an NFL consultant to shine the light on the rather illuminating fact that Texas' special teams were bad in 2012 and have to get better in 2013 in order for the Longhorns to succeed.
In fact, just roll back to the West Virginia film. That game was a microcosm of the ills that infected a deeply talented and fast Texas team -- a game-tying 41-yarder missed, two returns of 44 and 67 yards allowed to open the game, both of which led to touchdown drives and resorting to squib kicking and still giving up a 16-yard return. On the other side of the ledger, Oklahoma allowed Texas just one return past the 30 and an average starting field position of the 25 on kickoffs -- and the Sooners had plenty of kickoffs in that game -- and Texas only managed two touchdowns late, with OU's subs in the game.
Clearly, field position matters. Texas probably didn't need a consultant to let it in on that long-held axiom. What it does need is an emphasis in exploiting the numbers for its benefit.
In an effort to achieve that, Texas, which thumped its chest and boasted it would have the best special teams unit in the country in 2012 (yes, yes, guffaws abound), has made moves in coaching personnel. Defensive coordinator Manny Diaz and secondary coach Duane Akina will be in charge of kick cover. Texas made this move with five games remaining in 2012 to decent results. Opponents had just three returns of 30 or more yards through the season's final 23 kickoffs.
Wide receivers coach Darrell Wyatt and running backs coach Larry Porter will work with kickoff returns. Co-offensive coordinator Major Applewhite was in charge of kickoff returns last season but was moved because of his new play-calling duties.
Wyatt and Porter should have plenty of speed with which to work as Daje Johnson moves into the prime spot as a kick returner.
As for kicking and punting, Texas has started to work with Nick Rose alongside Nick Jordan on field goals. Rose has the more powerful leg of the two but struggles in the accuracy department. He will handle kickoffs. Jordan struggled in the early part of the season but did get better when he replaced Anthony Fera, making 6 of his last 8 field goals attempts.
As for Fera, he has been unable to kick field goals this spring due to the lingering hip injury. Caoches want to give the hip a chance to fully recover before pushing him toward field goals again. But, in all likelihood, he will be in contention for the punting spot instead of the kicking job. Fera was a punter at Penn State and averaged 42 yards on 64 kicks as a sophomore. Will Russ, Texas' other punter, has been out this spring with a back injury.
Texas has been working with an injury to its ego all spring as well. While the Longhorns didn't exactly dominate the return game -- since 2000 Texas has only once cracked the top 20 in kick return defense and finished 40th or worse seven times -- at least they were effective in keeping their heads above water, whereas now they are desperately trying to swim toward the light.