Special teams doing special things for No. 3 Texas
When No. 3 Texas and No. 13 Oklahoma State tee it up Saturday, the fun really starts when the kicks start flying.
The Longhorns have scored six special teams touchdowns this season on blocked kicks, punt returns and kickoff returns. Everyone from freshmen (D.J. Monroe has returned two kickoffs for scores) to seniors (Jordan Shipley has two punt returns for TDs) gets in on the act.
"Everybody wants to be on those teams," Shipley said.
The Cowboys have Perrish Cox, the Big 12's career leader in kickoff return yardage, who has four career kick returns for touchdowns.
Since 2002, Texas (7-0, 4-0 Big 12) has blocked 45 kicks, second only to Fresno State's 48. The Longhorns have blocked three punts this season, returning two for scores, including the last touchdown of the first half in Texas' 41-7 win last week over Missouri.
"Our kicking game is the best we've had," Texas coach Mack Brown said.
Brown puts his kick blocking teams in the hands of secondary coach Duane Akina, who recruits players from among the starters. Akina makes it a privilege to be on special teams, not just an extra burden.
That shows up in starting safety Earl Thomas being one of the best tacklers on kickoff coverage. The blocked punt against Missouri was by Malcolm Williams, who last week also got his first start at wide receiver.
Akina has even joked that he'd like to get quarterback Colt McCoy on some of his kick block teams. McCoy said he tried to sneak into a punt block meeting in the preseason.
"They kicked me out," McCoy said.
Brown loves seeing his starters so gung-ho about the kick team duties.
"When you see Earl Thomas is covering kickoffs, you know your team is committed to doing everything they need to do to win," Brown said.
It wasn't always that way.
Way back in 1999, Brown's second season in Austin, Texas lost its season opener after North Carolina blocked three punts. Brown vowed to make a change and get his best players and athletes on the field for kicks, blocks and coverage.
Oklahoma State (6-1, 3-0) will try to pin the Longhorns back with deep punts and kickoffs. Cowboys freshman punter Quinn Sharp ranks seventh in the nation with a 45.3-yard average. On kickoffs, Quinn leads the nation with 24 touchbacks.
If the Cowboys can keep Shipley or Monroe from ever leaving their end zone, they've already won the battle.
Brown said Monday the Longhorns are putting in extra work this year. The Longhorns spend 30 minutes of every practice working out the kick teams.
"Every day," Brown said. "Every phase."
Some of the units get nicknames. The punt return team is the "Posse." Shipley had a game-changing punt return for a touchdown in the first half of Texas' 34-24 win over Texas Tech.
Against Colorado, Texas trailed 14-10 in the third before freshman Marquise Goodwin blocked a punt that Ben Wells picked up for the go-ahead touchdown. Shipley scored on another return in the fourth.
"It's a huge momentum swing," Shipley said. "There's nothing bigger than a punt block or a long return for a touchdown."
The Longhorns are loaded with speed on their return teams. Monroe, who tied Texas' career record with two kickoff returns for TDs in his first four career games, is a world-class sprinter who has run a 10.08 100 meters and won a state track title in high school.
"Everybody's aware of the skill that they have, and their return units have been very good," Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy said. "When you have as much speed as they do, it makes it difficult."