Too many times fans and media are guilty of glossing over the third segment of football: special teams. This is unfortunate because strong special teams play is just as important to victory as the axiom, "run the ball well and play good defense." Frank Beamer has built a program at Virginia Tech from ash by emphasizing excellent special teams, solid defense, and pure grit. Effective special teams leads to better field position, and better field position is the subtext for victory. If Kentucky football can improve its special teams from last season good things will follow.
No one outside the hardest of the hardcore expect UK to field both an above average offense and defense this season. Yet, above average special teams would relieve the pressure on the offense and defense, and would erase some of their inevitable mistakes. Derrick Locke, Randall Cobb, and Tim Masthay's special teams' performances during the 2006-2009 seasons remains under-praised in most corners of BBN. It's not coincidental their special teams presence coincides with UK's best football run since The Claiborne Era.
A factor worth considering is that Kentucky has a new special teams coach this season. Bradley Dale Peveto moved back to LSU, and Craig Naivar will take over. Naivar has only coached special teams once, and that was the 2010 season at Rice University. In that season, Rice's special teams were ranked 42nd, according to F/+; and had a Special Teams Efficiency score of 0.885, according to FEI. For comparison's sake, UK's special teams were ranked 109th, according to F/+, and had a STE score of -0.531 (top ranked Alabama was 3.457). Naivar, in his one season as a special teams coordinator, had a good special teams unit. If Naivar can replicate his success at Rice that will have a tremendous impact on Kentucky's fortunes this season.
Kentucky returns some important special teams players, but for a unit that did not perform well last season it's not so clear how valuable that is. Here is how SB Nation's Bill Connelly sees UK's special teams heading into the season:
Joe Mansour was quite solid in 2013, both in booting high, unreturnable kickoffs and in making 10 of 10 field goals under 40 yards. And in Javess Blue and Demarco Robinson, the Wildcats had a couple of reasonably consistent return men. But punting and punt returns did not go well from a consistency perspective; the per-punt and per-return numbers were decent, but both units were quite all-or-nothing and created field position disadvantages that Kentucky really did not need. Mansour is gone, but punter Landon Foster and all return men return. We'll see if that's a particularly good thing.
Landon Foster regressed slightly last season. His averages only dipped a little, but that stat doesn't reflect his lack of consistency - mainly in terms of hang time and sometimes poor situational punting. Foster returns for his junior season, and his third as a starter. If Foster can improve these facets of his role he will be a valuable weapon for a defense that will hard-pressed to slow above average offenses.
Joe Mansour's graduation leaves a gap that will be filled by redshirt freshman Austin MacGinnis. MacGinnis was originally a Joker Phillips commitment that Stoops decided to honor. The coaches have repeatedly praised MacGinnis' ability, but his ultimate range is unknown. Mansour proved reliable within 40 yards, but UK will need MacGinnis to improve on Mansour's range and accuracy. If so, fewer drives will come up empty. Every point will matter this season.
The kick-off and punt returners will probably be Timmons, Blue and Robinson but for UK's sake I hope other players step up and replace them. It will be a healthy sign if Stanley "Boom" Williams, Charles Walker, or even Josh Clemons or JD Harmon supplant Timmons and Blue. In any case, Timmons and Blue should both be improved after a season of experience. Any positive production from Robinson would be welcomed. Stronger field position for an offense that has an inexperienced quarterback at the helm will be needed.
The coverage teams will also play a vital role in field position. Minimizing large returns is exceedingly important. Last season UK received strong special teams play from AJ Legree and Dyshaun Mobley who both subsequently transferred. This season multiple players need to step up and replace them. A higher quality of second and third string players should help.
Guys like Jaleel Hytche, Tyler Brause, TraVaugh Paschal, Glenn Faulkner, The Blaylock twins, Eric Dixon, and other key back-ups can contribute just as much, if not more, than Legree or Mobley previously. A critical part of Naivar's job will be to convince these players to accept and flourish in these roles. If mental hurdles can be overcome then pride and success will follow.
Good special teams play will likely play a decisive role in UK winning or losing multiple games this season. In close games this season, a quick glance at the special teams stats and field position will probably indicate the winner, barring a lopsided turnover margin. UK has returning experience and a new coach with a successful, though limited, track record. Improvement in this area is just as vital, arguably more so, than most other positions.