2017 Spring Practice Preview: Special Teams

 Can Devonte Williams be the spark IU is looking for on special teams?  Image: Cam Koenig HoosierHuddle.com

Can Devonte Williams be the spark IU is looking for on special teams? Image: Cam Koenig HoosierHuddle.com

Written By Sammy Jacobs (@Hoosier_Huddle)

A renewed emphasis will be put on the importance of special teams in 2017, when the Hoosiers start spring Practice on March 4th. The special teams unit was one of the Hoosiers’ bugaboos in 2016 that kept them from taking the next step up from a second consecutive 6-7 season. The Hoosiers struggled in all facets of the forgotten phase of the game. Griffin Oakes was sub-par the on both field goals and kick-offs, Joseph Gedeon wasn’t the difference maker at punter that he may have looked like against FIU, and the return game (both punt and kick) was non-existent.  This spring may serve as a wake-up call for any player that thinks their jobs on a special teams unit is safe.

Key Losses- Mitchell Paige Punt Returner, Holder

The Hoosiers don’t lose much on special teams in terms of personnel, but they are losing what may have been their best performer in punt returner Mitchell Paige. Paige earned All-Big Ten honors as a returner in his junior season. As a junior in 2015 Paige electrified the crowd with two touchdown returns and an averaged 11.1 yards per return. Last season, his production dipped to just 7.8 with a long return of 34 yards. While Paige didn’t provide as many fireworks in 2016 as he did in 2015, he did give the Hoosiers a reliable returner who opponents had to game plan for and replacing him in 2017 won’t be easy.

The Hoosiers have several players on the roster heading into spring practice that can help ease the loss of Paige. The most experienced is number one corner back Rashard Fant, who returned four punts for 41 yards in 2016 and has the speed to be a game breaker in space.

Using Fant as the primary punt returner is putting him in a high-risk situation, while Indiana does have better depth at corner than in 2015, it would still be a major blow if he got hurt. Personally, I would use Fant like the New York Giants used Odell Beckham Jr. and that is to use Fant in certain situations as your punt returner.

The Hoosiers do have other options here as well. Cole Gest has experience returning kicks and has some explosiveness needed as a punt returner. Back-up safety Chase Dutra and reserve wide receiver Isaac James also returned one punt each last season. Fant may be the best and most tantalizing option, but he is not the only Hoosier who can be used here.

On The Rebound?- Griffin Oakes (K)

In 2015 Griffin Oakes took home hardware for Big Ten Kicker of the Year and was an All-Big Ten selection because he made 82.8 percent of his field goals and tallied 52 touchbacks on kick-offs.

Coming into 2016, Oakes was supposed to be a given in the kicking game. However, there were some ominous signs that he may be entering a funk. Over his last two games in 2015 (Purdue and Duke), Oakes was just 3-for-6 on his field goal attempts and struggled kicking it deep in the Pinstripe Bowl.

Oakes never got off to the start he wanted to in 2016, as he missed four of his first eight field goal attempts while the protection unit was deficient as well. In total in 2016, Oakes finished just 16-of-26 on field goals, including four misses inside the red zone, while also struggling to put the ball deep in the end zone on kick-offs. Something was just off with Oakes in 2016 and IU will need him to start his rebound back to being an all-conference caliber kicker.

It is difficult to simulate game-like conditions in March and April. Something tells me the practice fields in Bloomington are just a little less raucous as Ohio State in October, but Oakes will have to make-do. While there certainly should be an open competition at kicker, Oakes doesn’t face much of a challenge in fall camp. The other kickers on the roster are Logan Justus, Aaron Del Grosso, and Nathanael Snyder. Only Del Grosso has game experience and he lost his starting job to Oakes in 2014. Justus and Snyder are both walk-ons with no game experience at the college level.

Will a Return Game Resurface at IU?

The art of kick-off return had gone missing at Indiana under former head coach Kevin Wilson since the 2012 season. The Hoosiers used to have dynamic returners on the roster since the turn of the century. Remember Lance Bennett’s 94-yard kick-off return for a touchdown that sealed a win at Oregon? Or Marcus Thigpen’s 98-yard retun that helped complete a 25-7 comeback win at Illinois in 2006? Or how about when the Hoosiers had James Bailey (2007) and Ray Fisher (2008) returning kicks for touchdowns. Under Kevin Wilson (2011-16) the Hoosiers had just two kick-offs returned for scores (Shane Wynn ’11 and Tevin Coleman ’12). IU’s kick return rankings nationally since 2011, 108th, 56th, 69th, 112th, 104th, and 94th. Wilson de-emphasized the return game, and it’s a bigger deal than people think. The Hoosiers are too talented to have those types of numbers.

So how does Tom Allen and the staff fix this?

They need to make it a priority in practice, emphasize it with their starters, and hold players accountable for their performances. For a team that struggled with an inconsistent offense, the extra yards picked up before running a play should take some pressure off.

The Hoosiers have the athletes to be better than horrible in kick return. Redshirt sophomore-to-be Devonte Williams was the primary kick returner last season with 39 opportunities. He looked as if he was one or two broken tackles away from a few big returns, but it didn’t happen. Williams averaged 20.1 yards per return. However, Williams’ job is not safe. Redshirt freshman running back Cole Gest looked very solid in limited time in 2016 while averaging 22 yards on five returns. Gest is back healthy and has the burst to get through the trash that Williams has not shown yet.

Reserve running backs Mike Majette and Ricky Brookins have also been used on kick-off return, but have largely been unsuccessful. There are more dynamic athletes coming in in the fall that could push those two out of consideration.

The Biggest Competition May Be at Punter

A position battle at punter, thrilling right?  Well it could just be the most competitive battle on the team. Incumbent punter Joseph Gedeon had an up and down season that saw him put his first career punt down inside the one, but also saw him have two punts blocked in a dismal performance at Michigan. Gedeon punted 64 times and averaged 38.6 yards per kick while having three punts blocked. That kind of production just is not good enough for a team that has to do the little things well in order to take the next step forward.

The Hoosiers realized their issues in the punt game and brought in Australian Haydon Whitehead, who comes from the well-regarded Pro-Kick Australia program. Despite not having played a down of American football, Whitehead joins IU as a redshirt sophomore.

He is a lefty punter and head coach Tom Allen had this to say about Whitehead on National Signing Day, “he brings that versatility of an Australian punter where he can punt traditional.” Allen added that, “he will run to his left and he can punt with his right foot as well. Most kids from there can do that, not like it's equal, but they do have the ability to that. It's a whole different approach because as it was explained to me when I was studying all this, the way we were raised throwing the football they're raised kicking it to each other. So they're comfortable with the ball and that's just one reason why you have seen so many of those in our game collegiately and it's been a big push and that's not going to change."

Do not be surprised to see Whitehead surpass Gedeon. Teams usually don’t bring on a scholarship punter to sit on the bench.

The Spring May Not Be The Best Time to Judge Specialists

Getting a feel for special teams performance is tough enough in fall camp, but it is nearly impossible in spring practice to be able to judge how the units will look. For one, the intensity is not going to be where it would be in a game. That’s not to say players loaf at this portion of practice, but fielding a punt with 120 people watching is far different than trying to catch the ball in the swirling winds at Michigan with 11 players coming to take your head off. The pressure of kicking a game-winning field goal or trying to get a punt off from the shadow of the goal post is missing. We’ll see how the staff handles the special team’s portion of practice, and performances will be scrutinized, but it’s far from an accurate test for these players.