While often overlooked, the special teams unit is an important part of any football team, and it does win games. UK’s special teams unit, or “special forces” as Coach Joker Phillips likes to call it, is coming off a rough season from last year. The 2011 Cats were second to last in the SEC in kickoff returns averaging 20.3 yards and worst in the SEC on punt returns with an average of only 1.8 yards.
It should be noted that the NCAA instituted a rule change earlier this year where kickoffs will now be done from the 35 yard line, and touchbacks on free kicks will start the offense out at the 25 yard line. The rules were instituted to encourage more touchbacks in an attempt to help reduce injuries occurring on kickoff returns. Studies have shown that injuries occur during kickoff returns more frequently than during any other part of the game.
Craig McIntosh enters his senior season with solid kicking stats. He has connected on 79% of his career field goals, with his furthest made at nearly 50 yards, and has successfully completed 96% of his extra point attempts. Last season, McIntosh carried the squad to a second best finish in the conference with overall field goal accuracy of 85%. In fact, McIntosh was the team’s leading scorer with 56 points, just ahead of receiver La’Rod King’s 42 points. Coach Phillips has nothing but good things to say about his starting placekicker, and with stats like these, who can blame him? Without question, McIntosh is an asset to the team when the offense is having difficulty scoring touchdowns, and his accuracy may be a comfort to the coaching staff this year if a long field goal means the difference between a win and a loss. Junior Joe Mansour was primary kickoff specialist last season and will be again this year while serving as back-up placekicker for McIntosh.
Newcomer Landon Foster has the capability to play at both the kicker and punter positions but will ultimately contribute at the punting position this season. Foster won the starting spot over Mansour who will serve as second option. Foster achieved plenty of accolades during his time at Independence High School where he was named MVP and picked as the punter for Tennessee’s all-state team. Coach Phillips has been very complimentary of Foster’s ability so it shouldn’t be a surprise he was recently named as the starting punter against Louisville this weekend. Jay Willmott provides another option at the punting position after redshirting his freshman year.
Kickoff and Punt Returners
This is an area in dire need of improvement over last year’s output. The absence of Randall Cobb and Derrick Locke undoubtedly had its effect on kickoff and punt returns last season. The coaching staff was forced to replace them with relatively inexperienced players at these positions which accounts for the difficulty the team suffered all season long. However, the recent NCAA rule change may play to the Wildcats’ advantage if last season’s struggles carry over into this year. This season Kentucky running backs, CoShik Williams, Raymond Sanders, and DyShawn Mobley will contribute on kickoff returns along with wide receiver Demarcus Sweat. Sophomore wide receiver Demarco Robinson is the team’s primary punt returner and will be backed up by senior wide receiver Gene McCaskill.
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