Lobos Especially Focused on Punting, Kicking Games
April 5, 2012
By Greg Archuleta
Warning: The special teams statistics following below may not be suitable for some viewers. Lobo football fan discretion is advised.
One of the primary objectives first-year University of New Mexico football coach Bob Davie has preached to his team since his arrival has been to work on the things within its control.
Despite the evidence the past couple of seasons that would suggest the contrary, special teams play is a part of the game the Lobos can control.
UNM ranked 70th among 120 Football Bowl Subdivision schools last season in kickoff return average at 21.32 yards per attempt. That was, by far, the Lobos' best special teams stat.
They ranked 106th in kick return defense, giving up 24.07 yards per kickoff, 106th in punt return defense (11.97 yards allowed per return), 112th in net punting (33.16 yards per attempt) and 120th - dead last - punt returns (1.22 yards per run-back).
Most of those numbers were actually improvements from the 2010 figures:
When Davie joined New Mexico at the end of the 2011 season, he told his team he was going to wipe the slate clean and not mention many things from the past.
Special teams play was not among those many things.
"After the final score, two of the most important things in football are turnovers and special teams," Davie says. "Special teams are something we really emphasize. Something I totally believe is that you can see the character and fundamentals of the team by the way they play special teams. You always want your best players on special teams."
The Lobos start every practice special teams kicking and return drills, then come back to special teams during the middle of practice to work on coverage drills.
"The emphasis on special teams is far greater that it has been in the past," senior A.J. Butler says. "The coaching staff says one of the most important things is the kicking game. You can lose games or you can win games by the kicking game. That's why they put such emphasis on it - so we can have an advantage and not beat ourselves."
The entire coaching staff is involved in special teams, but Davie says delegating outside linebackers coach Coleman Hutzler to oversee all the units was no accident.
"It's no coincidence that I put Coleman Hutzler in charge of special teams," Davie says. "He came from Florida where he coached under Urban Meyer. Urban was my special teams coach when we were at Notre Dame.
And Coleman was one of the first coaches I hired."
Hutzler had the unenviable duty of breaking down UNM's special teams last season.
"When I first got here, I looked at the whole season," Hutzler said. "For me, it wasn't really about watching anything schematic. It was seeing guys at different positions - how they did and what they did. Trying to piece together depth charts in the spring is difficult, and watching all that video helped me do that."
Identifying potential special teams players was just the starting point.
"We talked about from day one about creating our identity," Hutzler said, "who we are going forward as a special teams unit. And that's a big part of it, effort and competition.
"I can't create that identity. I can help them create an identity, but in the end, they're going to be the guys out there playing, so they've got to develop it and build it."
So far, mission accomplished.
"We need every player, every walk-on, everybody to buy into this situation," junior Emmanuel Fatokun says. "In the past, we were asked to take our notebooks home with us. Now, we're told to do that. To be on point and to come into practice and make sure you execute - you have to look over your work."
Adds Butler, "Maybe in the past, you had some guys saying, `Man, I hate special teams.' These coaches, they've got it to where we're understanding that special teams are one of the biggest parts of the game. Everybody wants to be a part of that because we want to win games. So you've got to bring your `A' game or you're not going to be on special teams."
"Ben is a veteran guy and has done a great job," Hutlzer says. "We're looking for Ben to fine tune his craft. That's his focus this spring - being detailed.
"And you always want to have a strong deep snapper, and to have one like Evan is awesome," Hutzler says. "He is so self-motivated and driven about his ability and about deep-snapping. He and Ben have kind of emerged as the leaders of that group."
Three Lobos currently are fighting to replace four-year starter James Aho, who finished second all-time on UNM's made field-goals list. Junior Justus Adams, who handled kickoffs last season, is battling junior Jason Allen and senior Greg Rivara for field-goal/extra-point duty.
But the coaching staff wants to make sure the team realizes that special teams are so much more than kicking and punting.
"A lot of times, you see guys on special teams from high schools to college to pros that maybe aren't the fastest or the strongest," Hutzler says, "but they go harder than the guy across from them. We talk about winning the one-on-one battles. Guys that will go all out and compete at that high level will usually play on special teams."
Which is a bigger goal for the players in 2012.
"You've got to come out and be better than everybody else," Butler says. "When you do that and earn a spot, you become elite."