UT punter Vince Penza, seen here holding the ball, credits the special teams' gains on the team this year to assistant coach Stan Watson.
Players. Formations. Plays.
This edict, uttered often by the new regime at University of Toledo, serves as a step-by-step manual to building a football program.
Identify your best players, and determine which formations accentuate their talents. When you've figured out those two things, load up the call sheet with plays conducive to the abilities of the playmakers.
With one quarter of the season over, the biggest gains that stem from this credo are not on offense or on defense but on special teams, after the staff instituted various modifications to resuscitate two maligned units.
Heading into Saturday's game at Western Michigan, the Rockets rank first in the Mid-American Conference in net punting and second in kickoff coverage, registering a significant climb from last year when they were 10th and 12th, respectively, in those categories.
Two other facets of special teams -- kickoff return and punt return -- are fifth, a respectable ranking given the loss from last year of superb returner Eric Page.
The initial step in fortifying these units came in the winter when coach Matt Campbell scrapped recent methods and appointed just one assistant -- Stan Watson -- to oversee all areas of special teams.
"It definitely helps, punter Vince Penza said. "Before, everyone was kind of pitching in their own ideas and coaching players up differently. Now it's set in stone.
"This is one guy, this is what he wants. All the players know that."
Penza, a junior, is having a breakout season. His 44.5 yards per punt ranks second in the MAC and is almost six more than his career average. He credits his success to the inclusion of a singular voice -- Watson's -- and a constant scheme unlike the scheme-of-the-week arrangement from last year. Some games he was instructed to kick rugby style, sprinting toward either sideline and delivering the kick once he felt pressure. Other times he kicked more traditionally, which he prefers, and which he's now doing.
"I don't think he ever got comfortable," Campbell said.
The change has produced profound results, with nine of Penza's 21 punts landing inside the opponent's 20-yard line and the Rockets posting a tidy 41.3 net yardage.
"We don't ask him to do what he can't do," Campbell said. "We try not to pinpoint exactly where we want him to punt the ball. We just let him kick it. We feel we have good enough guys to go down and cover."
Absent during Toledo's 3-1 start has been a major gaffe, such as a protection breakdown resulting in a punt blocked, or a missed tackle resulting in a debilitating return. Identifying the right players, Campbell notes, is critical to the formula. Linebacker Dan Molls and safety Jermaine Robinson, two of the team's biggest hitters, also play on kickoff coverage. As do reserves Trent Voss and Jordan Haden, both of whom Campbell called "outstanding."
Also key to the unit's success: Half of Jeremiah Detmer's 24 kickoffs have resulted in a touchback.
"Special teams has definitely won us some games," Penza said. "It's more involved than we all realized, just how special and dramatic the special teams aspect of the game is."
INJURY REPORT: The Rockets are as healthy as they could have hoped for. Running back David Fluellen (head) and linebacker Robert Bell (ankle) will be available, Campbell said Wednesday after practice. Both of them left the game and did not return in Saturday's win over Coastal Carolina. Additionally, cornerback Byron Best (knee) is expected back after missing the game.
SEASON TICKETS: UT has broken its record for football season tickets sales with a total of 11,917, eclipsing the mark of 11,792 set last year.
Contact Ryan Autullo at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6160 or on Twitter @AutulloBlade.
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