March 29, 2007

Spring Preview: Special teams get a boost

Virginia Tech head coach Frank Beamer believes that the quickest way to win a football game is through special teams. That's why Beamer focuses so much time and attention on the Hokies' special teams units. The results are evident as Tech blocked more punts-63-in the 1990's than any other Division I program and in Beamer's tenure at the school, 24 players have special teams' touchdowns.

Kent State's special teams success isn't so obvious, especially in kick and punt returns.

The Golden Flashes have returned just one punt for a touchdown since 2002 and have not returned a touchdown for a score since 1999 when Shawn Shoemaker took one 99 yards against Navy.

Kent State kick returners haven't averaged over 20 yards per return since the 2003 season. Last season they averaged just 18.7 yards per return, and in 2005, they posted a dismal 17.9 yards per attempt after an 18.1-yard average in the 2004 season.

Head coach Doug Martin hopes that adding more speed to the special teams in 2007 will translate into big plays and better field position.

"I'm really excited about our return game because we will be a faster football team this coming season than we were (last) season," said Martin shortly after the 2006 campaign. "A primary example of that is Curtis Eaton, a young man we signed from (Akron) Buchtel high school (in 2006), we redshirted this year. He'll be one of the fastest players in the MAC. He is the fastest player at Kent State and he will be our kickoff return man along with Jack Williams. That will give us something that we probably haven't had here in the return game."

With his speed, Eaton immediately adds the ability to make big plays on special teams. Last month at the MAC Indoor Track and Field Championships, he finished second in the 400-meters with a 48.13-second time.

Williams, a senior defensive back, returned six kicks for 122 yards last season with a long of 32-yards. With a 3.85-second time in the short shuttle, Williams is one of the quickest players on the roster.

Jon Drager returns as the Golden Flashes' primary punt returner. In his career, Drager has returned 38 punts for 311 yards. Phillip Garner should challenge for the position. Garner is a dynamic runner that excelled at the position in high school.

The expectations are high for the return game next season, but equally important is the kicking game.

Kent State kickers converted on 26 of 30 extra point attempts in 2006, but hit on just 2 of 10 field goal tries.

Reid Macko finished the year 1 of 6 on field goal attempts and Nate Reed was 1 of 4. With neither kicker demonstrating consistency last year, the door is open for either to emerge as the clear-cut starter.

"One of those kickers has got to come on and develop," Martin said. "I'm still holding out hope for Nate Reed that he's going to be that guy because he's got a really strong leg. (He) was a true freshman kicking this year; he'll be better next year. It was his first time he's ever kicked without a tee. That always makes a difference for those kids."

Martin also left the door open to another kicker competing for the job in the fall.

"One of the things our administration has done to help us here is increase our number of walk-ons that we can bring in, so we are going to really hit the trails hard in recruiting and try to get walk-on kickers in here this year," he said. "Obviously, if they win the job, they win a scholarship. That should be attractive to a lot of kids."

Handling the punting duties again in 2007 should be Jake Kilroy. The sophomore punted 53 times for 1,751 yards and landed nine of those kicks inside the opponents' 20-yard line. Reed and quarterback Julian Edelman each contributed four punts to Kent State's 33.3 yards per punt average. Their net-punting average of 29.86 yards ranked 11th in the Mid-American Conference.

Matt Muller and Derek Wales will compete for the long-snapper duties while the athletic Darren Rogers will likely return as the holder. Rogers scored on a 17-yard run off a fake field goal at Army. The touchdown was the first of the year for the Golden Flashes.

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