If you all remember I did a series of articles in June of 2017 that looked at the departing starters from the 2016 season and who I thought would be replacing them for 2017. With that I assigned a grade of “Upgrade“, “Downgrade” or “Draw‘.
What I’ll do first is look at each position, or unit, along the offense or defense as of today and write down who I think will be the starter and why it will be that guy. Then I’ll assign a ranking of “Upgrade” if I see an upgrade in player quality, “Downgrade’ if I see a lessening of talent or “Draw” if I think we’ll match last year’s player(s) in the position or unit.
This is a unit that I feel is severely overlooked by both the coaching staffs in college and by the fans. There are really seven different components to Special Teams; Punting, Punt coverage and Punt Returns. Also Kickoffs, Kick coverage and Kick returns. Then there is the ever-important Field Goal kicking.
In the 2017 season in some of those we excelled and in some we didn’t – and in some we pretty much just sucked doing. Let’s look at the positive aspects of our special teams play first.
We always talk about good defenses that can hold opposing offenses to short gains – but we tend to overlook the punter who can make the opponents start 40+ yards down the field or inside their own 20 yards line on a regular basis.
Punters who can do that on a regular basis are worth their weight in gold and we had one of the best in the nation last season in four-year starter SR Ryan Winslow. Here is his game log from 2017. Note what he did in pushing backward the starting points of our opposition. Without his great punting, and it truly was, we’d have given up a hell of a lot more points.
And here is what he did punting seen broken down:
That made him a first team All-ACC selection and 11th nationally in the Punting category. The tops in the nation averaged 47.5 so you can see Winslow’s 44.5 ypp is right there up with the best. He’ll be hard to replace.
That is the good news about our punt game. Where we fell down was in our punt return coverage game. Nationally we were 113th (10th in the ACC) in allowing 12.55 yards per return. In addition our kick return coverage exceeded that in ineptitude as we sat at 121st nationally (14th in the ACC) by allowing opposing teams 25.21 yards per kick return. Throw in giving up three blocked punts and it paints a not-so-pretty picture
Seriously, if you want to start figuring why we were not very good on defense last season, and overall we weren’t at 69th nationally, that is your jumping off point.
Will we be any better at that this year? Who knows as that is certainly the least discussed aspects of the team in fall camp. But I can tell you where I think we’ll probably not improve much if at all, and we may tank even, and that is in returning punts – which we did very well last season. We averaged 14.3 ypr which put us 7th in the country and 2nd in the ACC.
Why? well, even though Pitt fans like to think Quadree Henderson had a ‘down’ year in ’17 that was true as it was less spectacular than 2016 but it still was a great showing. Here are our punt and kickoff returners and their numbers for last season:
In 2016 Henderson averaged 15.8 ypr on punts (3rd nationally) and 30.5 on ypr on kickoffs (5th) and honestly that was a season for the ages at Pitt. So while he dipped he still was among national leaders in his special teams work as he was 9th in punt returns with an 11.6 ypr. As with Winslow he’ll be a very hard guy to replace.
For the 2018 version of our punting and punt return teams we’ll have rsFR Kirk Christodoulou out of Australia as our punter. KC (I’ll call him KC if I want to!) has a big leg but the concern with him is in two other areas. First is his accuracy in punting.
As the punters and kickers get right into it during the first part of practices when the media has the “open viewing window” I was able to watch him in actions a few times last year and was impressed with his leg strength and sort of unimpressed with his ability to put the ball where it was supposed to go. It looks like he worked on that though as his stats in the spring game were 11 punts for 415 yards (37.7 ypp) with 2 inside the 20 and 1 touchback.
So he can punt OK and has pretty good hangtime but I don’t think we’ll see the constant accuracy and spot placements we had from Winslow… who I can’t remember shanking a punt in his fours years at Pitt. Where I feel there is a big drop-off between the two is in actual football playing ability. It is one thing to punt the ball forward and a whole other thing to have situational awareness about what is happening on the field at all times you are out there.
Winslow was excellent at this with his ability to go up and get high or off-center snaps and turn them into punts. He even threw a 15 yard TD pass last year. KC is new to all this and may well be a one-dimensional punter. There is a world of difference between Australian Rules football and the game we play.
So it’s a DOWNGRADE for this part of the punting game.
As far as place kicking the ball goes we’ll have returning rsSO Alex Kessman off the tee again. His was an up and down season. His kickoffs were pretty effective but his field goal game was poor with only 11 scores in 19 tries (57%). That was 100th out of 108 places nationally and if the offense is going to need all the points, and I think it will, it can get he needs to up his game dramatically. Here is what he did kicking off and a touchback rate of 50% is pretty good I think, but I couldn’t find what was good or bad nationally:
The placekicking will be a DRAW.
Without Quadree Henderson returning punts and kickoffs this season we’ll be seeing more of rsSO Jazzee Stocker and some other player back there. Last Season WR Araujo-Lopes fielded one punt but I think he’ll be too valuable to worry about on special teams. Look for another WR though to step up. Perhaps it will be JR WR Maurice Ffrench, who knows?
Either way the returns teams are a DOWNGRADE.
As far as the punt and kick coverage teams go we were crap in both ways. Since we never hear or see who is taking turns on the coverage teams during fall camp this is a big unknown so…
The Coverage Teams are a DRAW.
Overall with our losing 1st team All-ACC Punter Ryan Winslow to graduation and 2nd team All-ACC for Specialist Henderson declaring early for the NFL draft I can’t say with any certainty at all that their replacements will be able to match the great jobs those two did for us. Therefore overall the Special Teams units combined are an easy:
P/S: Check out the carpeting in that header photo.