Special Teams: Oregon’s Achilles’ Heel

David Marsh Editorials 23 Comments

The 2020 season was disastrous for Oregon’s special teams. The kicking game started out bad, return coverage was often lacking, and Oregon just didn’t have much of a return game of their own.

At the beginning of last season, Camden Lewis had placekicking responsibilities and basically picked up where he left off — missing easy kicks. At the end of the 2019-20 season, it looked as though Lewis may have turned the corner, as he made some important field goals against Utah in the Pac-12 Championship game. The 2020 season confirmed that Lewis may practice well, but that practice has not translated to on-field results for the Ducks.

Lewis ended up losing his job to Henry Katleman, who seems to be the answer for Oregon at placekicker. He even showed off his range during the Spring Game by making a 52-yard field goal. It didn’t clear the bar by much, but it was good.

Lewis was also part of the problem with kickoffs because he made the coverage unit’s job more difficult. He couldn’t reach the end zone with his kicks and often the opposing returner would receive the ball inside their five-yard line. To make matters worse, the hang time on his kickoffs was typically poor, resulting in the returner having the ball in his hands well before the coverage team could even get down the field. Not all the coverage problems were Lewis’ fault, though. The coverage team missed too many tackles and often did a poor job containing the returner.

Irina Filenko

Camden Lewis’ kicking ability has not improved from 2019.

On the flip side, the return units need to secure the ball. The Pac-12 Championship Game and the Fiesta Bowl put on display how poor Oregon’s return game currently is. In the Pac-12 Championship Game, Oregon lost an onside kick that was not well disguised. Then in the Fiesta Bowl, Oregon lost a short kickoff by not securing the ball and again turned the ball over on a punt return, when a blocker accidentally touched the ball.

These problems were all the more frustrating because of the hopeful bright spots in 2019’s special teams unit: Mykael Wrights’ kick returns for touchdowns and Javon Holland’s consistent punt returns. These sort of plays were nonexistent in the shortened 2020 season, and the return game was at best a non-factor, at worst a complete disaster and liability.

Something needs to change with Oregon’s special teams heading into 2021. Under Mario Cristobal, Oregon has shown flashes for great special teams play, but last year’s special teams play was abysmal. If Oregon has any hopes of making the College Football Playoff in 2021 they are going to have to improve on special teams. It’s hard to know where the current problems stem from: young players, coaching, lack of practice time?

Probably a mixture of all the above. But more importantly, how can Oregon fix them this season?

David Marsh
Portland, Oregon
Top Photo By: UO Athletics

Andrew Mueller, the FishDuck.com Volunteer Editor for this article, works in higher education in Chicago, Illinois.

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Notalot

I go on record that I expect ST to be the breakout position group of the 21-22 season. They have been mostly missing the past two seasons. I sense that the all hands on deck including coaches approach will produce in spades. Or heads will roll following the season.

Haywarduck’s canary in the coal mine was actually a fuzzy yellow baby Duck that was snuffed.

The Ducks hold all the marbles. They need to unleash Oregon!

Logger29

The Badgers ran a kickoff straight up the sideline in ‘20 Rose Bowl. I thought at the time that was a bad sign and the lackluster special teams play since then is troubling.

Texas A&M’s “12th Man” was originally a non scholarship student selected by all campus open tryouts (sorry Seattle like most things, your bandwagon fans are clueless).

The 12th Man was the wedge breaker and a great link between team and student body.

I’m not suggesting Oregon try anything like the Aggies. I do wonder if placing starters on the field for the game’s most injury prone action is worth it.

Seems like a coach aught to be able to motivate reserve players, fellows hungry for playing time, to play like their hair is on fire , stay in their lanes and make solid tackles on coverage.

smith72

Well said Logger29! Motivation should be every player’s desire to demonstrate the ability to be a FORCE!

DanLduck

Seems I read somewhere that Cristobal addressed this issue by saying all the coaches would be contributing on special teams and they would possibly use more starters.
Last year due to covid, we sometimes only had a minimum of 52 players, I think.

ICamel

Camden Lewis could put the ball deep into the endzone on kickoffs, but he most consistently put it right at the goal line, which made me think that is where the coaches wanted it.

And with respect to playing golf, I gave it up long ago. Why spend time doing something that caused so much frustration? Curiously, I still have my clubs.

UtahDuck

I’ve been saying this for a bit but I have not been too impressed with bobby Williams.Our kicking under him has been almost the whole time and while last season was the first time i’ve seen coverage be that bad it is still worrisome. Add in that he is the TE coach and frankly I’ve felt we have had some good talent just not show up at that position and I think he is the weakest coach on the staff.

jrw

OT:

What do any of you wiser-than-me folks think of the ASU allegations? They seem to particularly egregious and blatant, to the point of idiocy. Do we need not worry about ASU now for few years?

https://sports.yahoo.com/sources-ncaa-investigating-arizona-state-football-for-recruiting-violations-194707554.html

UtahDuck

The biggest issue for ASU at this point is how systemic the issue is.

ASU’s issues are likely to fall under Level 1. Purely because It shows 1. Lack of institutional control 2. Unethical Conduct 3. Violation of head coach responsibility rules. 4. Payments to Recruits and 5. Intentional Violations.

ASU’s violations got to a point in which another Head Coach(coach Shaw) and an Athletic director(Jack Swarbrick ND) openly and publicly criticized ASU. It is a disaster for them and everyone on that coaching staff plus the AD could be fired with cause if the Allegations prove true.

Final point, I understand that jobs aren’t always great and your boss can at times be overbearing but the coaches that worked for ASU(presumidely Kevin Mawae, Dave Christensen and others) are so upset at you following you firing them that they are willing to risk Show-cause orders from the NCAA to retaliate you are probably a really bad boss.

In summation, allegedly ASU violated a number of Level one Infractions(which also allows the NCAA to treat any level 2/3 more severely), Have received open criticism from standing coaches and Athletic Directors and They have previous employees that are willing to comply with the NCAA regarding these Infractions. With All that ASU is likely to receive, Scholarship reductions 2-4/year for multiple years.(Think losing 8-15 scholarships. Lose a significant amount of their onsite official visits(Oregon lost 19 visits a year from the Willie Lyles). and pay some significant fines. My bet is a good number including Antonio Pierce and Herm Edwards will be given Show-cause orders by the ncaa and probably fired as a result of this.

ASU is toast if the Allegations are true, which is somewhat unfortunate because these actions are bad they likely aren’t worse than anything LSU has done recently but LSU makes a ton of money ASU doesn’t make as much so ASU will get hammered to show the big schools that they are willing to do some stuff. ASU would have been better off if they were USC or Notre Dame.

Charles Fischer, Mr. FishDuck

Simply superb write-up and summation. Thank you Utah!

Jon Joseph

What do I think? Why is the west coast schools including Chip + his ‘runner’ get bagged while it seems to be hands off down south?

Ole Miss ran a pay for play program. Compare the sanctions to SC where one guy + his family was getting paid for Reggie to leave, not attend, SC.

UNC? 2 decades of academic fraud but nothing to see here, move right along.

J Duck

Why is it that Utah always has a Ray Guy and Lou Groza winner or finalist? Haven’t paid a lot of attention to their overall special teams performance, tackling, return game, etc. but your coverage teams must do well when you have the best kickers and punters…placement, hang time, etc.

Mudslide

Hahaa…remember the faked direction punt return Utah pulled on us in a drubbing a couple of years ago. Pitiful coverage by the Ducks.

Mudslide

Bobby Williams, the Special Teams coach, has years of experience, including doing quite well at Alabama. (Who doesn’t, though?!) Scheme did play a huge role in the botched prep for that Iowa State onside kick. Everyone on earth, except the team, seemed to see that kick coming. I don’t know what kind of expertise Williams has in kicker coaching…but Lewis was a nightmare.

Thank goodness for “The Stache” this season. But after the I.S. game, I was telling the tv, the fridge, my wife, and anyone else in earshot that Williams should be fired ASAP. His game, nay the year’s special team prep was abominable.

WiseKwacker

Placekicker is such an unpredictable position–likely because it’s so highly intertwined with the individual’s mental focus. The Ducks have seemingly placed adequate emphasis and done well in recruiting kickers over the past few years in signing up Adam Stack and Camden Lewis.

Both were among the most highly-rated high school kickers of their class. Both have turned out to be flops, who lost their jobs to walk-ons. It’s gotta be frustrating to the coaching staff, since so many games are either won or lost via the kicking game.

For the first time in many years–I feel good about our punter and placekicker going into the season. But the other elements you refer to in your article–the coaching? Not so much.

Just as many of us miss Steve Greatwood on the O-Line and Gary Campbell with the Running Backs, some of us also miss Tom Osborne on Special Teams. That was a great staff that was treated badly at the end…

Logger29

Charles, was it Taggert’s decision to let Campbell, Osborne, and Greatwood go?

Charles Fischer, Mr. FishDuck

No, Rob Mullens fired the entire staff of Mark Helfrich, (which is what usually happens) and then Willie Taggart brought/selected his own guys to replace those three coaches.

I do recognize that all three would have been retired by now…but I still miss them!

Drake

The real impact of special teams comes down to those hard fought games where one play can change the momentum and emotions in the game. So often a missed field goal elevates the defending team, a good kick return energizes the offense, or a holding call negates a good return.

Kicks, and returns, are probably easier to work on then finding a kicker that excels under pressure. When you have a reliable kicker it can literally change the play calling during a game. Finding one seems to be the hard part, or is it a coaching issue?

Attention to the details in practice will fix some of the kick-off and return issues. Situational practices are definitely necessary so that both coaches and players can be prepared.

Jon Joseph

Thanks David.

Lewis’ gameday play versus his practice efforts reminds me of my sad golf game. Those perfect drives on the range vanish like Houdini’s elephant on the 1st tee. I’m impressive on the range. But hand me a pencil and a scorecard?

I believe all of us hope that last season, on special teams and otherwise, was an COVID anomaly?

Except against the Trojans and the SC Ole O line, where was the consistent effort? A superior roster means jack if the guys are not ready to play.

Come out in Columbus like the team did against Iowa State and it will be game over by half time.

Hopefully, Katleman is the answer to the KO and FG problems?

Ducked

Nerves come into play when you’re competing. You may hit your pitching wedge perfectly on the range, but when it’s a 110 yard carry over water, nerves kick in, you lose your rhythm, your swing breaks down…..and splash!

That seems to be the story with Lewis, while Katleman, despite his inexperience, doesn’t appear to be fazed by stage or circumstance.

Jon, you touched on the Oregon-Ohio State game, and your concern that an effort similar to that against Iowa State could result in disaster……by halftime.

My hope for that game is simply that Oregon shows that it belongs on the same field as Ohio State. That the game is not a blowout. A win would be great, and while I would like nothing more than to see the Ducks pull it off, I think the chance of that happening is unlikely.

Charles Fischer, Mr. FishDuck

Amen on the nerves; that is why I cannot play golf, as I cannot putt for my life!

You need to read my book: How to Line Up Your 4th Putt.

Haywarduck

Great article, we can’t just expect the opposing team to just lay down in the end zone!

The onside kick loss was the canary in the coal mine, the coordinator needs to have our student athletes ready, they weren’t.