Specialists offer boost to Rockets

Kicking game keeps its key components

8/14/2013
BY RYAN AUTULLO
BLADE SPORTS WRITER
UT's Bernard Reedy returns a punt against Central Michigan. He scored a special teams TD in three straight weeks last season.
UT's Bernard Reedy returns a punt against Central Michigan. He scored a special teams TD in three straight weeks last season.

Much is being made in the build-up to the season opener against Florida about the potency of an offense rife with playmakers and the competency of a defense annually searching for consistency.

Reedy
Reedy

Not to be overlooked at the University of Toledo is a special teams group that made big strides in coach Matt Campbell’s first year and has the makings to be as good, if not better.

A team whose increased attentiveness to the kicking game in 2012 manifested in a victory or two returns virtually all specialists, from a kicker who doesn’t miss, to a return man who makes tacklers miss, to a long snapper who never misses his target.

The key to sustainability, Campbell said, is delivering a counterpunch to opponents wising up and trying to play keep away from return ace Bernard Reedy or trying to slow the pursuit of Rockets coverage units teeming with head hunters.

“We have to think that way,” Campbell said. “We know with what we showed on film people are going to scheme just like they would offensively and defensively. You have to have the ability to think about the next step. What are people going to do?”

One wouldn’t get much resistance suggesting Toledo had the Mid-American Conference’s best special teams in 2012. They finished second through fifth in the league in kickoff return and punt return, punting, kickoff coverage, and field goals. Ranked near the bottom in past years, Campbell attributes the improvement to his appointing an assistant whose primary focus is special teams.

“That as much as anything helped us,” Campbell said of Stan Watson’s influence.

Individually, the Rockets had two of the MAC’s top specialists, and both return.

Reedy, who at one point scored special teams touchdowns in three straight weeks, emerged into every bit the return threat Eric Page was in recent years. Kicker Jeremiah Detmer closed the year with 17 straight made field goals, including five when the offense floundered in the red zone against Cincinnati.

“What streak?” Detmer said, smiling. “It’s a new year. I’m 0 for 0.”

Also back are the other two components of the field goal battery: Holder Vince Penza, who doubles as punter, and snapper Matt Wall, whom Detmer called “the best snapper I ever had.” If Wall’s name doesn’t ring a bell, that’s a good thing. Snappers operate in relative anonymity until they err, which Wall seldom does.

If last Saturday’s scrimmage was indication, the Rockets will have an additional weapon in the return game. Freshman Corey Jones, in his best imitation of Reedy, returned a kickoff for a touchdown.

“Corey’s one of the best freshmen I’ve ever played with,” Reedy said. “He’s got a lot of potential.”

On the first day of fall camp, coaches showed the names of graduated players from last year’s coverage units, which — unlike other areas of special teams — has holes to fill. Campbell sensed excited players ready to step in.

“We’ve treated those two units as valuable as any offensive play or defensive play that we’ll run,” Campbell said. “We want to get our best players out there, and we’ll continue to do those things.”

SCRIMMAGE: Of Saturday’s scrimmage, Campbell said, “We left there feeling pretty good about ourselves on both sides of the football.” Among individuals the coach praised were safeties Jordan Haden and Chaz Whitaker, linebacker Chase Murdock, and the offensive line. Running back Damion Jones-Moore sprained his knee in the scrimmage, Campbell said, and will miss at least a week. Defensive tackle Elijah Jones (blood clot) is still being held out of contact drills.

FAN APPRECIATION: Gates open at 2 p.m. Saturday for Fan Day, and spectators will be permitted to watch the last half hour of practice. Autograph signings will start at 2:45 p.m. in the west concourse and should last about 45 minutes.

Contact Ryan Autullo at: rautullo@theblade.com, 419-724-6160 or on Twitter @AutulloBlade.