KU overhauls special teams, and rightfully so
AUG 29, 2013 12:10p ET
If that seems like a lot, well, that's because it is: Only one other Bowl Championship Series school has spent more time shooting itself in the foot on special teams over the past three years, and it's an old friend -- Colorado, which left 102 points dangling.
The college football season officially kicks off today, although Charlie Weis' men won't join the party until next Saturday night, when the Coyotes of South Dakota pay a friendly visit. And while story line No. 1 for the opener is new quarterback Jake Heaps and No. 1A is probably stud wideout Justin McCay, it'll be interesting to see how KU's special teams have evolved, if at all, since the dumpster fire they left behind a year ago.
Last fall, the Jayhawks' kicking game was an adventure, if your idea of an adventure is a roller-coaster car with no working brakes. KU connected on just 10 of 16 field goals, and only 3 of 8 from 30 yards or longer, with a long of 37.
It got to be such a throw of the dice that Weis was forced to push the envelope in plus territory rather than walk away from a drive with a nice, safe three points to show for it. Either way, more often than not, they came away empty-handed.
And the numbers bear that out, sadly. Football Outsiders tracks a rating called STE, or "Special Teams Efficiency," which, in simplest terms, is how many points, plus or minus, a squad's special teams units were worth per game. In 2012, KU ranked 121st in the Football Bowl Subdivision, with an STE rating of negative-3.257. Which, trust us, is bad.
But this is worse: It means, based on this formula, special teams cost the Jayhawks more than a field goal per week. And at nearly 3.3 points per game, KU left an estimated 39 points on the field over 12 tilts. For a team that dropped five games by a touchdown or less, that's a painful amount of charity to be tossing around. (More pain: Kansas State checked in at No. 1 in the nation in STE in 2012, at plus-3.577.)
Weis knows this, of course, better than anyone, having been forced to live it once and then relive it on tape, time and again. He spent the off-season overhauling the entire setup, moving former special teams coordinator Clint Bowen over to linebackers coach and dividing the responsibilities among every other coach on the staff but quarterbacks coach Ron Powlus.
"I'm holding the whole staff accountable for it this year," Weis told the Lawrence (Kan.) Journal-World in March.
So while you're taking mental notes of the Heaps-to-McCay combo, the various uses of all-purpose ace Tony Pierson and the new nickel base defense, keep an eagle eye on the place-kicking derby as well. Redshirt freshman Matt Wyman is expected to get the starting nod, based on a late charge at practice this month. A walk-on a year ago from Bloomfield Hills, Mich., he beat out junior college imports Michael Mesh, who opened preseason camp as the front-runner, and Trevor Pardula, the biggest kid (6 feet 5, 212 pounds) and biggest leg of the bunch.
As with most of the things in his purview, Weis doesn't need his special teams to be brilliant; he just needs a few steps above the current waterline of putrid to keep the train moving forward. Preseason guru Phil Steele tosses out a boatload of miscellaneous rankings in his annual yearbook, including a formula for quantifying special teams; since 2010, he's rated KU 116th, 112th and 117th. And no other Big 12 program over the past three seasons has so consistently swum in the lower 10th percentile of FBS programs; the next-worst units over that same stretch were Texas Tech's, with an average rank of 70.7.
Will it make the difference between a winning season and a losing one? Probably not, in this case. But it might be the thing that swings a game here or there, the difference between one or two Big 12 victories and another crushing oh-fer.
And when you're in rebuild mode, every little bit, every little edge, helps. Over the last two seasons, in contests decided by six points or less, K-State is 7-0; KU, 1-6. If Weis is serious about following the Jedi master's playbook to the letter, the Wildcats' kicking game might be another path well worth sauntering.
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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