There are two weeks left until the South Florida Bulls open their 2011 football season at Notre Dame, which gives us just enough time to present a complete USF Football Prospectus. Each
Thursday Friday, we'll review one segment of the team -- looking back at its history, studying how it performed in 2010, and talking about what to expect from it in 2011.
We've covered the entire offense and defense so far... the quarterbacks, the running backs, the wide receivers, the offensive line, the defensive line, the linebackers, and the secondary. Today we finish the prospectus with special teams.
USF'S SPECIAL TEAMS HISTORY
Mention special teams to a USF fan and they'll probably just start shaking their head. This phase of the game has always wobbled between spectacular plays and head-slapping failure, especially in the late 2000s. It was somewhat fitting that a punt returned for a touchdown started the long chain of events which resulted in Jim Leavitt's removal as head coach. Leavitt insisted on coaching the special teams himself, and it was one of the most aggravating things he did.
Still, there have been some outstanding special teams players. Actually there were several of them in USF's early years. Punter Tony Umholtz and kicker Bill Gramatica were both I-AA All-Americans, and Gramatica kicked a 63-yard field goal against Austin Peay in 2000 (only two yards shorter than the all-time NCAA record without a tee, held by his brother Martin). Charlie Jackson ranks second all-time in return yardage, and he was the first Bull to ever touch a football in a game when he fielded the opening kickoff against Kentucky Wesleyan in 1997. In addition to being the best wide receiver in USF history, DeAndrew Rubin ran a total of five kicks back for touchdowns in his career.
Towards the end of Leavitt's tenure, there were two all-out special-teams disasters. In the first few games of the 2006 season, USF went through three punters -- Delbert Alvarado, Ilia Petrov, and Justin Teachey -- and even Matt Grothe was called on to quick kick a couple of times. Through three games that year, the Bulls punted 12 times for a combined average of 29.8 yards per punt, and that's not even including returns. (The net average was an embarrassing 15.8 yards, and against UCF they had a snap sail over Alvarado's head, who retrieved the ball and then tried to kick it anyway. It was blocked and returned for a touchdown.) Eventually the Bulls resorted to Teachey, a kickoff specialist, rugby-kicking the ball for most of the season with middling results. There weren't any more punting blunders that year. But it still took a few more weeks until USF fans stopped freaking out every time the punt team checked into the game.
The other disaster was in 2009. After Maikon Bonani was lost for the season because of a freak accident at Busch Gardens, it forced a shell-shocked Alvarado to start kicking field goals and extra points again. Delbert was recruited as a punter, and he was never a really accurate placekicker. (Witness his 2-for-6 on field goals against Auburn in 2007, which featured the most nerve-wracking 18-yard field goal of all time.) It went as poorly as expected, but at least Eric Schwartz was able to stabilize that position. He was no help on coverage, though, where the Bulls allowed a horrendous 21.0 yards per punt return. That was actually more yardage than they allowed on the average kickoff return (20.5), a nearly impossible feat.
USF'S SPECIAL TEAMS IN 2010
So obviously there was a lot of room for improvement when Skip Holtz came aboard and assistant coach Vernon Hargreaves took over the special teams. And USF greatly improved in almost every facet. Bonani came on in place of Schwartz after he missed four of five field goal attempts, and Maikon went on to have the best placekicking season in USF history. He made 17 of 21 field goals, only missing two kicks inside of 50 yards, and hit a 38-yarder in overtime to beat Louisville.
Lindsey Lamar had a breakout year returning kickoffs, averaging 26.6 yards per returning and running two kicks back for touchdowns -- one for USF's only touchdown against Syracuse, and a fantastic team effort return against Louisville. Terrence Mitchell averaged 11 yards per return, including a 67-yard return against Western Kentucky. The coverage teams also did well. While the kick return average against went up, 21.5 yards is still pretty decent. The punt coverage got a lot better, all the way down to 9.5 yards. And that includes a downright weird play against Rutgers where five tacklers descended on Mason Robinson and all of them assumed he signaled for a fair catch... except he did not call for a fair catch and ran 60 yards for a touchdown. USF also blocked two punts and returned them both for touchdowns.
The punting chores were handled well by Justin Brockhaus-Kann for about a month, and then the wheels fell off. The player Holtz had called "Gus the kicking mule" back in August limped home with a 37.6 yard punting average, including several games with an average in the low 30s. Sometimes punting average can be a misleading stat when field position is taken into consideration. But with only 19 of Brockhaus-Kann's 64 punts landing inside the 20, and zero touchbacks, it really was what it appeared to be. Along with a spate of kickoffs out of bounds late in the season, punting was the only glaring issue with the special teams in 2010.
SPECIAL TEAMS OUTLOOK FOR 2011
Bonani, Mitchell, and Lamar are all basically written into the lineup in pen (no matter what Holtz says about the placekicking battle). The kick coverage units should remain strong, and now last year's special teams ace Armando Sanchez may be free to rejoin the unit after moving back to linebacker from a stint at fullback. Michael Walsh returns at long snapper following an excellent season where only one snap out of 125 went awry. It should be another solid year of special teams play.
The only battle is at punter, where a three-way competition has developed between Brockhaus-Kann, redshirt freshman Chris Veron, and newcomer Mattias Ciabatti. The three seem to be taking turns in the lead and no clear favorite has emerged. Look for this battle to continue right up to the first time the punt team checks in against Notre Dame.
Which, by the way, is only 15 days away. As the billboards from a few years ago said, "Are U ready?"