When it comes time to project the 2014 season, Longhorn fans are quick to talk about David Ash’s health, offensive line play and a thin secondary. A closer examination reveals that there is a different area that has more questions than any other – special teams.

After more than a decade of dominance from the Texas special teams unit, fans probably take them for granted. Regardless, the truth is that the importance of special teams is vastly underrated.

The most memorable name in special teams from last season was Anthony Fera. The kicker and punter was praised and awarded (rightfully so) more than any other player on the team. Though Fera deserved recognition, little to nothing was said about the rest of the special teams (kickoff return, punt return, etc).

Absent Fera’s contributions in 2013, the special teams units have been a bleak area for the Longhorns in recent years. In 2013, Mack Brown stuck with his 2012 kick coverage coaches in Manny Diaz and Duane Akina even though that season was a sub-par year for the coverage units compared to those Texas had in prior years.

In addition to working with the defensive backs, Charlie Strong tabbed Chris Vaughn to take the lead on special teams. Vaughn has the daunting task to make Texas’ special teams a force to be reckoned with by starting from scratch when searching for returners.

With recent suspensions and dismissals forcing changes in the lineup for punt and kick returners this season, Coach Vaughn will rely on veterans to carry the torch and lead the team. Texas only averaged 20.1 yards per kick return last season, so Vaughn has challenged the team’s veterans to improve that number. Vaughn has Jaxon Shipley and Quadre Diggs as his punt returners, but has been quoted as saying he will make room for players who prove that they have the power to be a reliable returner.

Preseason projections have the Longhorns picked to battle through several close games, so special teams figures to play a very significant role throughout the Fall. Without breakout star Fera, punters and kickers have huge shoes to fill before the season begins.

Fans expect an extra point after a touchdown, and booming punts and kicks that pin opposing teams deep in their own territory. Coach Vaughn is having players fight for positions, and by doing so, he is finding out which players want to live up to fan expectations.

First Unit: Will Russ
Top Reserves: Senior Michael Davidson and redshirt freshman Mitchell Becker

Given that Anthony Fera’s performance on the field was both dependable and impressive, he is arguably the biggest loss from last year’s team. Will Russ, who was hindered by a back injury last spring, is tasked with replacing Fera at punter. Russ hasn’t seen much playing time, but unlike his two predecessors, Justin Tucker and Fera, Russ will not be used as a kicker. The separation of the positions puts less pressure on Russ and should allow him to focus on the task at hand.

The key purpose of a punter is to limit the opposing team’s field position. “Hidden yards” are a key metric for punters and punt coverage teams. One of Russ’ strengths is his consistency. During the spring game, Russ’ three punts averaged 43.3 yards with two inside the 20-yard line. Expectations for Russ aren’t extremely high, so he should have the opportunity to prove himself valuable without the pressure that comes with being a Texas punter.

Place Kicker
First Unit: Nick Rose/Nick Jordan plus Will Russ as holder

Top Reserves: Junior Ben Pruitt and senior Michael Davidson

Coach Vaughn has Nick Rose and Nick Jordan competing for place kicker this season, and different publications have different answers on who’s winning the battle. Though Jordan didn’t have a chance to kick at all during the 2013 season, he was the backup for Fera in 2012. As a freshman, Jordan played in several games, but he only went 9 for 15 in field goal attempts. When Fera returned for the 2013 season, Jordan watched Fera from the sideline and hopefully took good notes. Rose, on the other hand, kicked the only live field goal during open practice last weekend.

Vaughn has praised both players, but Strong indicated to the media that Nick Rose is serving as kicker on the first team.

As we’ve seen multiple times in previous games, Texas relies heavily on the kicker to perform in all types of scenarios – from conference championship field goals to severe Midwestern weather. Even moreso than with punting, consistency is absolutely critical in the kicking game.

Both Tucker and Fera were models of dependability during their respective times on the team. As stated previously, separating the kicker’s position from the punting duties should provide for more focus for all involved.

The former walk-on (Rose) and the high school All American (Jordan) have both waited patiently for their opportunity to shine as the next heralded kicker for the Horns. Fans are hoping that both young men soaked up some of the moxie that Fera, Tucker and Lawrence left in the locker room.

Punt & Kick Returners
First Unit:
Punt Returners- Jaxon Shipley, Quandre Diggs
Kick Returners- Marcus Johnson, Duke Thomas
Top reserves:
Punt Returners- Armanti Foreman
Kick Returners- Armanti Foreman, Jacorey Warrick

As stated above, Texas ranked as one of the worst kick return teams in the country last year (21.02 yard average – 72nd nationally). Junior Kendall Sanders’ dismissal directly impacted the depth at kick returner.

Marcus Johnson, who served as a kick returner last year, is slotted for one of the spots on returns this Fall. While Johnson isn’t an electric open field runner, his straight line speed is a plus (and on kick returns, the latter is more important than elusiveness).

With Johnson’s experience, Vaughn may be willing to gamble in the opener and pair him with a younger player like Jacorey Warrick or Armanti Foreman. The safer bet is that Duke Thomas will provide a steadier pairing to Johnson.

At punt returner, Vaughn will rely on Quandre Diggs against UNT. After the opener, the position is surrounded by question marks such as Jaxon Shipley’s health and Daje Johnson’s eligibility.

Johnson’s suspension (at least one game) will affect the Longhorns, but maybe not to the extent that it’s projected. Although Johnson is vividly remembered for his 85-yard punt return during the Oklahoma game last year, most fans have forgotten his lack of reliability on returns after the OU game. Johnson definitely presents a high risk/high reward choice for Vaughn (assuming his return to the team).

Whether it’s providing the offense with a short field, pinning an opponent deep for the defense, or converting on every opportunity to score points, special teams is poised to have a huge impact this year. If the special teams units perform to their greatest potential, it literally could mean getting a win in what would otherwise have been a loss. Between consistency and accuracy of the place kicker and punter, to the speed of a return, Texas has a lot to prove in its special teams. For this team, especially for this year, special teams must be special.
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