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Summer Study: The Nameless Special Teams

With the Big East Media Day happening yesterday, the start of fall camps and real news is not far off.  Predictions and previews are beginning to roll out by the day.  Backyard Brawl banter is already beginning to spew.  The beautiful game of college football is indeed close.  With that, the Summer Study Series is winding down.  Today, a quick look at Pitt's special teams is in store.  Without a Todd Graham-coined, bombastic adjective to describe it, the special teams unit seems pretty boring and a bit forgotten, but we all know how important this unit can be to the outcome of a game.  Anson recently expressed some misgivings about the special teams, and I can understand his concern.  A position by position breakdown illustrates the huge amount of inexperience here.


Redshirt junior Kevin Harper will take over the kicking duties from two-year starter Dan Hutchins who graduated.  Harper, who appeared in all 13 games last year, was previously responsible for handling kickoffs and long field goals.  In his 70 kickoffs, he averaged 65.9 yards per kick, and also hit 11 touchbacks.  What does all this tell you?  The answer is Harper obviously has a very strong leg, but lacks accuracy.  There's no other reason why he had the assignments he did, while Hutchins handled all routine field goals.  The good news is, I recall Todd Graham praising Harper several times during spring practices, so I'm inclined to believe he has been working to improve his accuracy a great deal.  A strong leg, especially on kickoffs is key, to prevent decimating returns by opponents.  If Harper can continue to do that, and make the routine field goals, I think he'll be fine taking over. 


Pitt will be trying to replace Dan Hutchins here, too, as he handled all the team's punting last season.  He averaged about 45 yards per punt, a strong number that put opponents in tough field positions.  The importance of a talented punter can't be undermined, so I think Hutchins will be missed.  Three walk-ons are competing for the starting punting duties this year: sophomore Matt Yoklic, junior Aaron Hassett, and redshirt freshman Drake Greer.  I know next to nothing about this competition, but if I had to guess, I'd say the starting job goes to Yoklic, a 2010 Big East All-Academic Team member. 


Returns were handled mostly by Cam Saddler and Ray Graham last season, but with Graham assuming the starting running back job, his role will likely diminish.  Saddler was okay last year, averaging 10.5 yards per punt return (good for third in the Big East).  Speedy cornerback Buddy Jackson looks poised to take over the kick returns after a strong spring.  I'm much more excited by what Jackson, a former kick returner in high school, brings to the table than Saddler. 

Right now, there are just a lot of question marks with this unit, but that doesn't mean they won't get the job done.  Special teams doesn't have to be spectacular, they just can't lose games.  Hopefully Todd Graham comes up with an enthusiastic name for them in 2011, because I need something to work with.  Graham and the rest of the coaching staff will be examined next time, wrapping up the Summer Study Series.