A tone for Texas Tech’s special teams was set five minutes into the season opener.
Ryan Bustin lined up a 43-yard field goal and banged it home, sending a signal that his spring-game struggle was nothing worry about. Then freshman linebacker Malik Jenkins dashed downfield on the ensuing kickoff and knocked an SMU return man off his feet inside the 20-yard line.
Through two games, Texas Tech’s special teams have looked sharp and organized.
“We’ve made that an emphasis since we got here, that our good players are going to play on special teams,” Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury said. “Starters play, and then we need to develop young guys that step in and take pride in that role, and I think our assistant coaches have done a really good job. It’s led by coach (Trey) Haverty, but all the assistants play a role making that important to our team.”
Bustin is 3 for 3 on field goals after missing three from inside 40 yards in the spring game. Kramer Fyfe’s touchback rate, less than 37 percent last year, is better than 70 percent this season. Freshman receiver Carlos Thompson sparked the return game last week, making a determined 35-yard return with a punt, then a 73-yard runback with a free kick.
And coverage units have been sound.
None of which makes Haverty gloat.
“It’s all right,” Haverty said of the coverage aspect. “We haven’t had anything that’s hurt us big-time yet, but there’s things we have to get fixed, stuff we see on film that not everybody sees. There’s definitely a lot of room for improvement.”
He’s all right
Ryan Bustin triggered a mild panic among Texas Tech fans with his shaky spring game, but there was a reasonable explanation. Bustin suffered a pulled hamstring in his plant leg two weeks before spring practice and barely kicked in March and April.
Maybe he shouldn’t have been out there for the spring finale at all.
“I was trying to come back too fast, and I wasn’t ready for the spring game,” he said. “I tried to push myself. That’s all it was.”
Bustin said he was oblivious to whatever concern his spring-game showing might have raised.
“The next day after the spring game, it was out of my mind,” he said. “It’s been smooth sailing from there.”
Bustin had a good starting point for this season. He tied a school record last year with 17 field goals in 24 attempts. So far this year, he’s hit from 43, 27 and 28 yards. In the summer, while he waited for his hamstring to heal, he studied video of the three kicks he had blocked last year to make sure that doesn’t happen again.
“I worked with my kicking coach over the summer, tweaked a few things, and I’ve been kicking a good ball,” Bustin said.
Though simply kicking it into the end zone for a touchback isn’t always the strategy, Kramer Fyfe had only 29 touchbacks on 79 kickoffs last season. Through two games this year, he already has 12 touchbacks in 17 chances.
“I’ve just been working this offseason on my leg strength,” said Fyfe, the junior from Lake Travis. “I’ve been working with the strength staff, and they’ve been doing a great job getting us ready for the deep kicks.”
In last week’s 61-13 rout of Stephen F. Austin, Fyfe had eight touchbacks in 10 kickoffs. In the 41-23 victory at SMU, he was 4-for-7 in touchbacks and fellow kicker Taylor Symmank was 1-for-1.
“We’ve just been really working on my contact and follow through and getting it out of the end zone,” Fyfe said.
Nowhere to run
Tech opponents haven’t had many kickoffs to return. When they have, all the escape hatches have been covered.
The Red Raiders have cut down the return man four times inside the 20-yard line and the other at the 24. Similarly, the longest return of a Ryan Erxleben punt has been for 9 yards, the rest 5 or fewer.
Defensive end Branden Jackson made two tackles on punt coverage at SMU, one for a 1-yard return and the other for minus-1.
“Everybody we have on the punt team, the majority are players we have on defense who take pride in it,” Jackson said. “So punt team, it’s defense — defense that we get to come full speed from 40 and 30 yards back.
“Our number-one goal is to protect Ryan (Erxleben) and after that, that’s when the fun begins.”
Jackson and linebacker Micah Awe have had a hand in two tackles apiece on punt coverage. In the SFA game, on the two kickoffs that were returned, linebacker Andre Ross made tackles at the Lumberjacks’ 24 and the 18.
Tech had three kickoff tackles inside the 20 at SMU, the credit going to Jenkins, linebackers Pete Robertson and Summitt Hogue and safety John White.
“They’re playing hard as a unit,” Haverty said.
Keep an eye on
After his memorable finish to the 2012 season, Jakeem Grant has yet to break a big return. That’s not to say the Red Raiders have done without in that department either.
Granted, it came in the second half of a blowout game, but Thompson, the little slot receiver from Manvel, showed he has a future as a return man.
“He put the one on the ground, which you don’t like to see,” Kingsbury said, referring to the fumble Tech retrieved on Thompson’s 73-yard kick return. “He’s still young and growing up, but it was fun to see, when the lights turned on, that he likes the moment. That’s encouraging.”
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Last season, Texas Tech recovered three “sky kicks” — kickoffs purposely popped high and short to confuse return men. So far this season, the Red Raiders haven’t tried one, but they didn’t leave with Tommy Tuberville.
Kicker Kramer Fyfe said sky kicks are practiced every week.
“That’s definitely something we look forward to doing when there’s strong wind,” Fyfe said. “Hang the ball up in the air and let their returners fair catch it — or, hopefully, drop it. That’s still in the playbook.”
Trey Haverty has the title of special teams coordinator, but he doesn’t want the perception that it’s all his operation. Among his fellow assistants, Eric Morris supervises the punt-return team, for example, Lee Hays handles the field-goal unit, John Scott works with the field goal-block team, and Kevin Oliver strategizes with kickoff specialist Fyfe.
Haverty coaches the punt team and the kickoff-return unit.
“It’s a group deal,” Haverty said. “That’s the best thing coach Kingsbury’s done is emphasize that special teams, everybody’s going to play it and everybody’s going to coach to it.”