The third team of any football game rarely gets the coverage it deserves. That goes just as much for the Oregon Ducks. The special teams unit has been just as integral to Oregon's recent success as the offense and defense. Think about Nate Costa's improbable hold to send the game to overtime in Arizona. De'Anthony Thomas' kick return for a touchdown to spark the come back against USC. Cliff Harris' punt return for a touchdown against Cal that was the deciding factor. The onside kick against Stanford. The countless 2 point conversions.
There are six situations on special teams that are a part of almost every game; kickoff, kick returns, punts, punt returns, extra points and field goals. Oregon has tried to maximize their advantage in each situation to continue to give themselves the edge in any football game.
As we preview the the different units of the offense and defense in the coming weeks, lets take a few minutes to look at the importance special teams plays this year and what Oregon has to offer for each of the different parts.
Oregon has struggled in the last couple of years to put kickoffs into the endzone and get touch backs. This hasn't necessarily hurt them as their speed and depth of talent has kept Oregon from giving up a kick return for a touchdown in the last five years. Oregon has also been in the top 2 in conference in opponent kickoff returns in the last two years. This is especially important considering Oregon has had 25 or more kickoffs than any other team in the conference. This up coming year should be interesting given that the NCAA has changed the kickoff line to the 35. Look for Chip Kelly to continue to take unconventional approaches to special teams as Oregon may not improve greatly on their touch back numbers, but continue to use their depth of talent and speed to try and pin teams deeper.
This unit comes down to two words, De'Anthony Thomas. The most electrifying player in the country will continue to see opportunities to use his god given speed, incredible vision and ability to change directions on a dime to try and give Oregon an advantage in field position as well as on the scoreboard. Expect other teams to be aware of the same thing. It should be really interesting to see how many kickoffs Thomas actually sees this year. But that is a double edged sword as well. If you kick it to him and make him return it, Oregon will usually pull him for the first series and let him rest (they did this with Barner and James the last couple of years). If you kick it away from him or out of the endzone, now you get to face a fresh Thomas and Barner for your first series. You really have to pick your poison. Do you want a fresh Barner and Thomas facing you from the 20 yard line, or do you risk De'Anthony doing something special and putting you in the hole on the scoreboard?
Oregon is spoiled with Jackson Rice. For a guy who was in the bottom third of the conference the last year in total punts, it's amazing to realize he was also first in punting average. Oh, and he was also top 10 in the country and named to the Ray Guy award watch list again. Having Jackson Rice as your punter at Oregon is like giving flippers to Michael Phelps. They're already the fastest, do you need to give them an extra advantage too?
This should be interesting to see what Oregon pulls out this year for punt returns. Two years ago, Cliff Harris exploded onto the national scene as one of the top punt returners in the country. Last year, LaMichael James took over the duty as guys struggled to figure out how to let a punt go inside the 10 yard line. De'Anthony Thomas saw a few returns last year, but Harris and James are both gone now. Barner could be the go to guy, but the early season schedule may allow Kelly and Osborne to try out other guys like Mathis, Ifo, Lowe or Sumler at that position. If you were categorizing the different units coming into the fall, you have to give punt returns a big unknown right now.
The last time Oregon went into the season with a quarterback competition, the guy who ended up not starting, ended up being the holder for extra points. Do I need to remind everyone how important that ended up being? Last year Jackson Rice was the holder, but that didn't stop Oregon from pulling out the spectacular with only a single point on the line. Rice could easily step in again this year, but with two QBs available, look for Oregon to continue to put in some more wrinkles in their extra point game plans.
Pop quiz hot shot. It's fourth and six at the 23 with 1:30 left to play and Oregon only has 1 timeout and the Ducks are down 2. Do you try for the go ahead field goal from 40, or do you trust Chip Kelly's offense to pick up the needed first down? Unfortunately with a new QB, losing your top offensive players from the previous year and a team with a solid defense, I expect Oregon to be faced with a decision like this in the coming year. Right now, I have no answer for what I would chose.
Tell us your thoughts about the special teams in the comments. Are you comfortable with Maldonado or Beard on field goals? Who will be the go to guy for punt returns? Will DAT ever see a kickoff he can try and return, or is it realy fair that Jackson Rice is the punter for one of the most prolific offenses in the country?