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April 16, 2009

Special Teams Still Has Question Marks

Until something goes wrong, it's not usually given much thought.
But there were times last year for WKU when there was enough wrong to put it in the forefront.
The kicking battle was unsettled until the fourth game of the season, with junior Zac Minturn and since graduated Tanner Siewert splitting the duties on field goals and kickoffs.

Even after the spot was decided, there was some rockiness. Siewert finished 11-16 on the season, but missed some crucial field goals.

This spring, there's some more headway being made to remedy the kicking game. Right now, sophomore Casey Tinius has a leg up on Minturn for the nod. Tinius is back to near full strength after suffering a sizable injury in the fall.

"Casey has had a good spring, so far," special teams coordinator Stuart Holt said. "He's back healthy. That was really his biggest obstacle in the fall. He had a very significant quad tear. We were just real careful with him, getting him back to a hundred percent and making sure we weren't overdoing it. I think it's paid off, because he's hitting the ball as well as he has since he's been here. Zac is coming off an injury. He had an injury in the off-season. That's hurt him a little bit. He's not hitting it quite as well as he has in the past, but he's working himself out of it. Those two guys are really battling for the kicking positions."

There hasn't been a lot of special teams work thus far, but Tinius has been readying himself when the time comes. He's hit so far from a max spring distance of 47 yards.

"One of the main things I've tried to improve on is the consistency with my steps and where my plant foot's at in relation to the ball on field goals," Tinius said. "Last year, my first year I came in, I was really inconsistent and it was different every time. This spring, we've been focusing on making sure I'm doing the same thing every time, that way it's not different and I know what I need to do. It's a lot more effective and consistent when I'm doing the same thing over and over."

But the main concern this spring may be who's getting the ball to Tinius and junior punter Jeremy Moore. Last year's long snapper, Josh Stinson, decided to leave the team after the season.

So far, freshman Chris Young has gotten the best reviews at long snapper, though sophomore linebacker Chris Bullard and sophomore offensive lineman Derrick Elder have also tried their hands.

"Young's definitely the first team guy as a long snapper," coach David Elson said. "Then, we've been rotating him and some other guys at short snapping. We think Chris Bullard's got a chance to be good at it, we've just gotta get him some more work at it. That's one of those positions where nobody notices it until it goes wrong. That's out job as coaches, to make sure we've got a sense of urgency about it now, so it doesn't become an issue in the fall."

Bullard may be a surprise, given that he's never long snapped before. But the WKU coaches feel like the tools may be there, if he's needed. Bullard was drafted as a right fielder coming out of high school.

"He's a good athlete," Holt said. "We started working with him as a freshman, when he came in. We didn't really have the need for him to do it, but we just kinda started teaching him. He's working at it and when he's on, he's good. His issue is consistency right now. When it's something you've never done before and particularly in a game and take some reps. We'll see. I know he would like to help us there, he's working hard at it, we've just gotta get him consistent. Athletically, he's got a great arm and can throw the ball a country mile and would help us in coverage."

The other hope this spring is that the Toppers can find more options at kick and punt returner. Junior Jake Gaebler was the main option last season when he wasn't hurt and incoming sophomore Antoinne Lightfoot and redshirt freshman Anthony Sheppard have also gotten reps there.

Lightfoot, a transfer from Murray State, was the all-purpose yards leader as a freshman for the Racers in 2007.

"I'm just focusing on catching the ball, then making a move from there and getting to the wall," he said. "The protection's been alright. They've given me enough time to see what I've got in front of me and keep my eye on the ball. I try going before practice, just trying to get a couple of punts in and kicks in. Of course, I wanna get faster and work on my flexibility, but the main thing in punt returning is getting to the wall and see what I've got from there."

At kick returner, redshirt freshmen Bobby Rainey and Mark Santoro, and seniors Tyrell Hayden and Marell Booker are all getting early looks.

The most stable position may be punter, where Moore has again looked like the guy. His only competition this spring has been from Tinius.

"We need to improve hangtime," he said. "We're trying to get more fair catches, less returns. We're getting away from the directional punting, just getting back to staying straight down the field and getting the ball up in the air so we can get some more fair catches."

The kicking race may get tighter in the fall with the arrival of freshman Monte Merrick, who's expected to battle right away in the fall practice time before the season.

But for now, there's still plenty of work to do. This way, the special teams won't be talked about for something wrong.


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