This is the ninth in a series of posts which will break down the '08 football 'Cats. Today we break down the special teams.
Kentucky's special team play last year can be separated into two categories: units that performed consistently well, and units that underperformed.
UK fans have been spoiled over the last several years with exceptional return play, but last year was a bit disappointing. UK returners fielded a total of 94 kicks ( punts and kick-offs ) without scoring a touchdown. Actually, they never came close to scoring a touchdown. Their averages are as follows:
- As a team, UK averaged 22.1 yards per kick-off return on 63 chances, with zero touchdowns. UK's opponents averaged 23.5 yards per return, and scored two touchdowns.
- As a team, UK averaged 8.1 yards per punt return on 31 chances, also with zero touchdowns. UK's opponents averaged only 6.0 yards per return, with a long of 16 yards, and zero touchdowns.
Many thought going into last year ( including me ) that UK's return game would flourish, especially considering that the kick-off would be executed from the 30 yard line ( moved back from the 35 yard line ). But a 22 yard return average isn't' exactly Devin Hester territory. UK did experience some key injuries to their two top return guys last year ( Rafael Little and Keenan Burton ), which adversely effected the return numbers. But the guys who replaced the two injured stars are going to be the ones on full-time return duty this year, with the exception of freshman Randall Cobb. Let's hope a year of experience will aid in increasing the productivity of UK's return men in '08, and a TD or two wouldn't hurt.
'08 Kick Returners
Dicky Lyons 5'11', 185 lb senior -- For his career, Lyons has returned 28 kick-offs for a 24.0 yard average return. Lyons has returned 14 punts in his career for an average of 6.7 yards per return. Last year he returned 15 kick-offs, averaging 22.1 yards per return, and two punts for a 20.0 yard average.
Lyons will be relied upon to return both kick-offs and punts. Although blessed with speed, he's not a burner, but he has proved to be elusive as a pass receiver. So far that elusiveness has not translated to his return game.
Tony Dixon 5'9", 203 lb senior -- Dixon returned 8 kick-offs last year for an average of 22.9 yards per return.
Dixon will probably team with Lyons on kick-off returns, at least early in the year. His mix of speed and power make him a dangerous weapon in return situations.
Derrick Locke 5'10" ,180 lb sophomore -- Locke returned 5 kick-offs last year for an average of 23.2 yards per return.
The running back couples blazing speed with brute force. His seemingly fearless attitude makes him a special teams coach's favorite commodity. Locke could be positioned to make a difference in the return game if given the opportunity. He has a couple of players with more experience in front of him, but his pure talent may dictate him being a major presence returning kicks.
Alfonso Smith 6'1", 204 lb junior -- Smith has returned 2 kick-offs for an average of 22.0 yards per return.
Smith is very similar to Locke in that they both have supersonic speed, but he also has very little experience. As is true with Locke, if Smith is given the opportunity he could be spectacular as a returner.
David Jones 5'10", 185 lb senior -- The newly anointed starting corner-back has returned one kick-off for 14 yards.
Jones is another of UK's rocket-propelled track stars ( 4.4 speed ) masquerading as a football player. But, I'm not sure how much he will be utilized this year. He is after-all learning a new position. A new position where he will be starting in his first ever game at cornerback, so the coaching staff may feel that he has an adequately full plate. But as always, if injuries become a problem he will be given the opportunity to produce.
Demoreo Ford 5"10, 186 lb junior -- Ford has returned only 8 punts in his career, for a 6.2 yard per return average.
Ford's health is always a concern. If he can get, and remain healthy he has all the qualities a coach looks for in a return man. He's very fast, and eludes well, but he can't return every kick for a touchdown, which means he has to be tackled. And being tackled is not his forte'. With the emergence of Derrick Locke, Alfonso Smith, and Randall Cobb, Ford's number of chances will decrease, but if injuries become an issue he will be called upon to serve.
Randall Cobb 5'11", 180 lb freshman -- "The Phenom" has been mentioned recently as a real possibility to return kicks. Why am I not surprised?
Lones Seiber 5'9", 182 lb place kicker, junior -- For his career Seiber has made 27 of 44 field goals ( 61.3 % ). Last year Seiber made 16 of 25 attempts ( 64.0% ). In his career he has made 84 of 88 point after tries. Last year the Knoxville native scored a UK school record 99 points.
Perhaps I should have written that Seiber "performed consistently" for the first eleven games. Going into the Tennessee game the Knoxville native had made 15 of 20 field goal attempts, but in his final two games he missed four of five chances. One of which was a blocked 34 yard attempt, in overtime, versus UT ( the ball hit a UT lineman in the face mask ).
Will that late season ineffectiveness carry-over into '08? For Rick Brook's sake I hope not. Seiber performed very well at times last year:
- He made three field goals in the epic victory over LSU ( two in the 4th quarter, and 1 in overtime ) for which he won the "Lou Groza Kickers Award".
- He also made a huge 48 yard field goal against Vandy, which tied the score going into the half.
- He made three of three chances versus South Carolina.
He has demonstrated with the above performances that he can be a very reliable kicker, but Seiber's percentage of makes must be around the 80% mark. UK will probably be in an abundance of close games this year, and Seiber has to be "money, honey" in order for UK to have a good chance of winning consistently.
Tim Masthay 6'2", 203 lb punter, kicks-off, senior -- For his career Masthay has punted 154 times for a career average of 38.4 yards per punt. Last year the Murray High School alum punted 50 times for a 39.8 yard average. Masthay led the SEC with 23 touchbacks on kick-offs last year. He was also named UK's "Special Teams Player of the Year" in '07. Opponents averaged only 6.0 yards per return on Masthay's punts.
Masthay has improved his yardage on punts every year. He has, for the most part, been a picture of consistency for the last season-and-a-half. On punts he kicks a pretty high ball, which enables the head-hunters to gain ground in the pursuit of the ball carrier. And, as evidenced by his SEC leading 23 touchbacks, his leg is not lacking in the power department. He generally does an excellent job of taking away field position, which gives UK a huge edge in many games. I don't foresee Masthay reversing course, so I look forward to many long punts, and "field goal" kick-offs in '08.
As an added bonus; Masthay's highest punting average for any single game is 47.3 yards. He accomplished that feat twice; versus LSU and UL, both last year.
Ryan Tydlacka 6'1", 195 pound kicker and punter, redshirt freshman -- The Trinity High School grad will see action if Masthay is injured or if Seiber is ineffective. Tydlacka was named 1st Team All-State after averaging 45.6 yards per punt in his senior year. Also in his senior year he made 68 of 70 point after tries, and 5 of 7 field goal attempts.
J. J. Housley 5'10", 186 lb kicker, senior -- The Hazard native began the '06 campaign as the starter while Seiber recovered from hip surgery. He made 7 of 8 point after tries, but missed his only field goal attempt.
If Masthay continues his upward tic, and Seiber can regain the touch he had for the first nine games of last year, then the kicking game will remain an advantage for UK. Seiber has to do what all good athletes do; put the final two games of last season behind him. If he is unable to do that, then I don't think Rich Brooks will hesitate to change kickers.
The return game, I believe, will improve over last year. Even though the returners are inexperienced, their talent level is very high, with speed being their defining characteristic. As I wrote above, some touchdowns, and good field position is all I ask. Surely, with the twelve-cylinder, turbo-charged, speed machines UK has returning kicks, I am not asking for too much.
Thanks for reading, and only 15 days until the 'Cats confront e-ville, face to face!