BOULDER - For a coaching staff that has routinely sermonized on the absolute value of special teams play, Colorado's performance in that category over the past three seasons has fallen, well, considerably short of special.
Here's a succinct three-year synopsis, courtesy of CU special teams coach Kent Riddle:
"The first year here we were bad, the second year we were average, last year we were bad."
If this sounds a bit like an Exxon CEO shrugging off oil spills, don't be alarmed. Riddle's candor comes, in part, from a forecast (OK, his) that much better and brighter times await in his area.
Still, some sizeable "ifs" can't be ignored:
- If placekicker Aric Goodman rights himself after an erratic 2008 season;
- If seasoned punter Matt DiLallo hits his 2009 goals;
- If a productive replacement is found for talented but enigmatic return man Josh Smith;
- If overall kick coverage improves.
There are several indications that a corner is about to be turned by Riddle & Co, and "bad, average, bad" could become above average or exceptional in Year 4. But don't lose track of those "ifs."
Riddle's reasons for the expected improvement?
Almost across the board, the Buffaloes are deeper and more talented - faster and stronger, too. Many special teams players, circa 2009, are would-be front-liners who might have been given time off from their offensive or defensive roles in seasons past when kick cover or return teams took the field.
"Ryan Walters (a graduated three-year starter at safety) would have been a great special teams player for us, but were trying to get every play we could out of the guy on defense," Riddle said.
"It was a matter of when he was going to knock himself out, not if. We just didn't have the bodies to draw on; we were just thin there.
"All of that sounds like a big excuse, and to some degree it is. We were putting 11 guys on the field who were trying as hard as they could and doing what they were taught.
"But sometimes a one-on-one tackle in the open field - that's tough. To be successful on special teams, you need to get that to two-on-one.
"There's not a guy on our (current) two-deep who wouldn't be one of our top guys (in another area) in the last two years. Is it a cop-out to say we weren't very fast and weren't very big?
"Yeah, a little bit. And I don't want to make it sound I don't appreciate what those guys were doing, but if you're running down there in five (seconds) flat, you're just not very far down there."
Want speed? The members of Riddle's kickoff coverage team likely will be drawn from Ben Burney, Corey Nabors, Doug Rippy, Travis Sandersfield , Brian Lockridge, Ray Polk, Anthony Perkins, Arthur Jaffe, Cha'pelle Brown, Jimmy Smith, Jalil Brown, Marcus Burton and Patrick Mahnke.
The common denominator: Of those 13, eight play in the secondary. CU is rich with defensive backs, and their speed is being utilized on special teams.
Said Riddle: "We're using more DBs now because there are more to use."
Defensive back Jalil Brown, the Buffs' special teams point leader for the past two seasons, recalls frequently feeling like a soloist on kick coverage in seasons past.
Not so much now: "On punts and kickoffs, I'll look left and right and see guys running with me. In years past, that wasn't always the case," he said.
Corner Ben Burney, a free-spirited fifth-year senior, can offer perspective on special teams and what's required to play them right.
The best special-teammers, said Burney, must contribute "one technique, one simple technique, done right . . . if it's a back pedal, if it's cutting somebody off inside or leverage-wise - it's one technique and you do it full-go. And if you can do that, you can be a good special teams player.''
But complementing technique is a touch of frenzy coupled with the realization that what's being done on that play can turn a game.
"Coach Riddle is looking for the most athletic people, and in some cases the craziest people, to run down and do what you can do," Burney said.
"So you just come out there and feel like a warrior, a gladiator, running down there. That's the way you have to feel on special teams.
"And a person has to realize this is a play that's as important as anything else on defense or offense. Special teams are really a point in a game that can change everything. Some people don't realize that, but they're among the most important plays - kickoffs, punts, punt returns, you don't get that many, so each one is special."
Seniors such as tight end Riar Geer and linebackers Marcus Burton and Jeff Smart - all captains - know the worth of special teams and often pitch in on scout teams to offer the No. 1 coverage and return units the best possible "looks."
"That's just the way it's got to be to get better," Riddle said. "And those veteran guys are willing to do it . . . . I think there's been a recent shift in the realization of just how important it all is.
"Guys realized that some of the things that happened (on special teams) hurt us tremendously. And those were all things that very easily could have been eliminated.
"On the flip side, I think they also realized there were great things that happened and helped us - big returns at key times, turnovers at key times and we made some field goals at key times."
Other key field goals were missed, but Riddle believes Goodman will be more consistent this season and Jameson Davis is recovering from the physical issues that plagued him in 2008. Freshman Zach Grossnickle is a redshirt candidate.
"(Davis) tried to battle through, just to get us through the year," Riddle said. "When your kicker goes down with a knee injury, that's a sometimes thing. It happens.
"But when your kicker goes down with a concussion in the middle of a game - that's just bad luck. That just kind of typifies things from last year."
Goodman's 2008 performance, said Riddle, suffered from a variety of issues, including worries about protection that hurt his confidence and dwelling too much on misses rather than concentrating on the entire placement process.
"He needs to be more consistent, more successful and just produce better," Riddle said. "But there are more things that go into that. It's not all him.
"I think we all look at that as being in the past; let's learn from it and move on. Correct the mistakes and not let it happen again.
"Aric is doing a good job now; we've put him in some pretty tough situations. He's focused in on controlling what he can control and appreciates the preparation and the process. He's much less focused on individual accomplishment (and more) on what can I do to help this team."
DiLallo, meanwhile, appears poised to make his final season his best. A more demanding off-season that included hopping on one leg up and down the Folsom Field stadium steps - a grueling regimen borrowed from Burney - has made him stronger and boosted his confidence.
"I feel more powerful and more stable," DiLallo said. "(Hopping steps on one leg) works on that hip explosion; punting is pretty much with just one leg anyway.
"I'm the most confident I've been, I'm the strongest . . . yeah, I'm readier than I've ever been."
Among his personal goals are putting himself into contention to win the Ray Guy Award, and if he averages 46 yards a punt (42 net) with no blocked punts and no touchbacks - all goals - he should find himself solidly in the Guy mix.
DiLallo's backup is running back Darrell Scott, who might never make an instructional video on form but nonetheless can be an impressive punter.
"It's nice to have Darrell back there as an option," Riddle said. "Early in camp, if he was tired, we told him, 'Don't punt. It's not like you're a big form and technique guy.'
"But that doesn't keep his ball from travelling any shorter. It's all muscle; there's not a ton of technique to it. The only thing is we make sure he gets it off in the right amount of time. Other than that, however you're going to kick it, just kick it."
Laughing about his technique, Scott said he'd never had a punting coach or attended a specialty camp: "I've always just used all my strength, and when I do get a good drop, I boom it. Everybody at the spring game saw that."
Scott also is among candidates - the rest of the field includes Demetrius Sumler, Rodney Stewart, Lockridge and Polk - to return kickoffs.
"Since we lost Josh (Scott's uncle), the team has really had to come together and put the pieces together to get the puzzle completed," Scott said, adding he returned kicks in high school and enjoyed it.
"It went good, it was fun . . . but it's different here. It's a lot more organized, you've got to follow your blockers and they've got to complete their assignments for you to have success."
Punt returners, said Riddle, face other issues altogether because coverage has become more spread out and teams are using more rugby-style punts.
If your roster doesn't include a Dez Bryant (Oklahoma State) or a Jeremy Maclin (formerly of Missouri), "You just need a guy back there who can handle the ball," Riddle said. "There's just not a lot of opportunities (for a big return). And with the rugby punt, those don't get returned very often.
"You need a reliable guy back there who will save you yards rather than make you yards . . . somebody who will go back there and catch every ball. If you've got that, you're probably a little bit ahead of the curve.
"The reality of it is, if you've got that many one-on-one blocks, and if a guy hits a five-second hang time, you're probably not going to return it. Before, there were ways that you could kind of make something happen.
"Or if a guy hits a scalding, rugby style hopper, you're probably not going to get a return on that. But if you've got a guy who can catch it and make two or three yards, you're probably better off."
CU's prospects to fill that safe-rather-than-sorry role include Jason Espinoza and Scotty McKnight, although several other players with more open-field speed have been given looks in camp and could see situational use.
To a man, the Buffs believe they'll be better on special teams this season.
Scott attributes it to players being "hungry and more motivated; the younger guys are pushing the older guys because they want to have a spot. We finally have depth."
Jalil Brown points to a heavier emphasis and more overall experience: "We've put a lot more time in on it in meetings, and this year a lot of the guys have been in the system longer."
And Burney sees it like this: "When you have any opportunity to get on the field, you glorify that moment. When I was a freshman, all I had was special teams, so I took that to heart. When I got on the field, I tried to ball out.
"People are always talking about getting on TV a lot . . . well, if you get down there on a punt or kickoff return and make that tackle, the camera's going to be on you. You're going to get your face-time."
If that can make special teams special, so be it.
THE LOWDOWN ON . . .
Coach: Kent Riddle.
Returning starters: PK Aric Goodman, P Matt DiLallo, SN Justin Drescher, H Scotty McKnight.
Returnees: PK Jameson Davis, P Darrell Scott, SN Austin Bisnow; several return specialist candidates.
Newcomers: PK Zach Grossnickle and walk-ons PK Ryan Aweida and Justin Mihalcin.
Key losses: P Tom Suazo, PR/KR Josh Smith (transfer).
Stat line: Goodman (5-14) and Davis (1-3) were a combined 6-17 in field goal attempts last season, while DiLallo averaged 34.0 net yards per punt. CU was among the Big 12 Conference's 2008 bottom dwellers in kickoff coverage, mostly because of several long returns allowed. But five of last season's special teams point leaders return, including leader Jalil Brown (25 points).
Bottom line: This is a very critical area for the Buffs, and one in which improvement must be made. Field goal kicking turned into a weekly adventure last season for Goodman, and DiLallo's inconsistency gave coaches reason to call on the seldom-used Suazo. Grossnickle, a highly touted local freshman, hasn't been given as many field goal attempts in practice while coaches give Goodman more opportunities to kick under situational pressure. Scott's punting form is technically deficient, but a strong leg allows him to compensate - sometimes. Improved depth and speed should allow the Buffs to be sounder in kick coverage.