Special teams play will be vital in the Civil War

2010-11-30T23:45:00Z 2015-03-25T18:09:46Z Special teams play will be vital in the Civil WarBy Cliff Kirkpatrick, Gazette-Times Reporter Corvallis Gazette Times

For all the ups and downs of the Oregon State football team this season, the steadiest area has been special teams.

Even when All-American returner James Rodgers went down with a season-ending injury in the fifth game, the Beavers kept returning the ball at a steady pace.

Place-kicking has been a little shaky but it hasn't cost them a win. And kicker Justin Kahut has returned to form after success against Southern California.

The Beavers will need big plays on special teams to have a chance in Saturday's Civil War against top-ranked Oregon.

And if they don't play well, the Ducks have more than enough ability on their special teams to take advantage.

"We are all buying into what (special teams) coach (Bruce) Read has to say," punter Johnny Hekker said. "He gives us a good chance to be successful. We are all working hard to perfect the little things to get better every week."

Rodgers was a game-breaking returner with an average of 28.8 yards on kickoff returns and 18.3 on punt returns, with a touchdown. Jordan Poyer has taken over for Rodgers and averages 27.2 on kick returns and 9.6 on punt returns.

"James is a great returner that sets the tone, and Poyer has done a nice job of being super consistent and running hard," Read said. "He catches punts cleanly and knows when to go and not go. We've carried on from where we started."

Returns are not all about the returner. The Beavers have a group of blockers who open holes.

The Unga brothers, Kevin and Devin, and Michael Doctor are only some of the contributors.

"They have taken some pride in the one-on-one battles that occur during the plays," Read said. "Those guys in front of the runners take their job seriously."

Read is in the second season of his third stint as special teams coordinator at OSU with coach Mike Riley, so there's continuity to what he does.

He installs his systems each spring and works the group hard so once the season arrives they just fine-tune the plays.

"Those groups have executed well," Read said. "They started off pretty quick. Some seasons you never see it, and you are never going to be good."

Read obsesses over the few bad plays by the coverage teams and tries to improve them. The Beavers have covered well, allowing 21.9 yards on kickoff returns and 7.1 on punt returns. They have not given up a score.

Brandon Hardin, Rashaad Reynolds, Poyer, the Ungas and Doctor have been big hitters on the coverage teams.

"That's my favorite thing about being here, being a gunner," Poyer said. "It's one-on-one, you beat the guy in front of you and you go make a play."

The Beavers will need a strong game in that area since Oregon's Cliff Harris is the top punt returner in the country with a 20.9-yard average and four touchdowns.

Punting and kickoff placement help. Kahut doesn't have a big leg, but pins returners on the sideline so the Beavers can trap them on the sideline.

Hekker has an average of 41.3 yards with 13 punts of 50-plus yards. He has a booming leg with a tendency to shank a punt. Consistency is an ongoing quest.

"He tries to kick the ball too hard," Read said. "He needs to realize he has all kinds of leg. If he swings three-quarter speed that's all he needs to punt the ball 40 yards with good hang time. Once he learns to harness it he'll be pretty impressive. I think he gets amped up in games and tries to crush it. Those are the ones he miss-hits."

However, his average is not the important number. Of his 57 punts, 25 have been downed inside the 20 and nine were fair caught.

"Johnny has punted the ball higher as the season went on," Read said. "The hang time is there. The gunners have done a nice job of downing the ball."

Hekker added a rugby punt this season so the ball bounces for longer positive yards. His run to the side before the punt allows the gunners to get down field to stop any return.

He also mastered the flip kick, which is a punt on the front side tip of the football. When Hekker hits the ball it spins backward.

It only goes 30-35 yards, but the ball is deadened by the ground. Hekker uses it on short punts to pin opponents against the goal line.

Kahut has been the lone trouble spot. He has missed four of his 10 field goal attempts and two extra points.

"The (preseason) automobile (accident) set him back," Read said. "He got healthy, and when he got healthy it took him a while to kick himself back into where he wanted to be. He struggled with some kicks and then the mind game took over."

Kahut hit three pressure field goals against USC. He has his confidence back, and the Beavers may need him in the clutch this week.

"He has been kicking the ball real well the last four weeks," Read said. "I felt really good about him, but hadn't had many opportunities. He's settling in and kicking like we thought he would at the beginning of the season. Hopefully, he'll finish strong."

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