(Note: Third in a series previewing the Buffs position-by-position during training camp. Today: Special teams.)
BOULDER - Colorado special teams coach J.D. Brookhart eased into the 2011 football season on a wing - actually a couple of legs - and a prayer.
He was breaking in a pair of freshmen at punter and kicker, at best a dicey proposition to start any season. But by late November, first-year fatigue factors aside, Brookhart's pair of young Buffs - punter Darragh O'Neill, kicker Will Oliver - had adjusted and performed pretty well.
And that reduces the number of sleepless nights Brookhart might endure during this August camp.
"You've got a couple of things that you like," he said. "You've got some freshmen that had experience and had some success that they can expand on. And you've got two talented kids behind them (punter Zach Grossnickle, kicker Justin Castor) that can challenge them."
Elsewhere in Brookhart's realm, things seem just as solid. His No. 1 snapper (Ryan Iverson) and holder (Justin Gorman) are experienced and his punt coverage unit has the benefit of a season in his system.
"In a lot of ways our punt team did some good things against some good return people . . . we really did," Brookhart said. "We were multiple in what we did and held some guys in check. We had our issues, but I think we should be better throughout that unit. I like who we have on it, their backups. There are just a few little issues to iron out."
As for stocking his teams with front-line players, Brookhart's philosophy is clear: "I think this: when you look at your special teams, unless you know you're kicking it out of the end zone, you put your very best 11 kids on and I don't care where they're at - offense or defense, starters or not. I think you put your very best 11 on kickoff, first and foremost. Punt gets the next best crew, then the return units get it from there.
"Hopefully we'll be able to do that. Last year we were so limited . . . we could (Doug) Rippy on one thing, we could (Ray) Polk on one unit because we didn't feel great about where our depth was. We couldn't use Paul (Richardson) on any of the returns. It was very limiting last year, and I think if camp goes as we hope there are going to be a lot more options. You can spread the wealth."
Returners, both punt and kickoff, usually aren't identified until much further into camp, and given CU's glut of incoming skill players, don't expect any hasty announcements at either spot. But Brookhart said returning players who could see return duty include receiver Keenan Canty and safety Terrel Smith. Tailback D.D. Goodson also has been receiving some return attention.
Brookhart had specific areas of improvement for both of his kickers as they entered their second seasons. For O'Neill, he wanted better hang time and more accurate directional punting. For Oliver, it was consistency and getting the ball higher faster.
Both players believe those specific areas have been addressed in the off-season and over the summer. There also was a common goal for both: better conditioning that would take them through November without a noticeable loss of endurance or leg strength.
Trying to push his punts' hang time into the 4.4- to 4.6-second range, O'Neill spent a good portion of the summer working on his flexibility. That might seem incongruent, but O'Neill calls it a "huge" part of improving the height of his punts. While watching TV, he took to the floor and stretched and did yoga.
"That's something I never did before," he said. "I just realized the importance of it."
To improve leg strength, he also did "ballistic jumps" using boxes on the floor while wearing a weighted vest. And, of course, he punted - warming up with 20 consecutive punts, then hitting about 30 to his left (he's identified that as his problem direction), then hitting another 15 to his right.
"I did a ton of directional kicking," he said.
He also practiced rugby punting but noted, "That's all J.D.'s call . . . I worked on that, too, with five to ten each day just to keep in touch. But it wasn't my focus."
An accomplished punter's optimum hang time usually is in the 4.6- to 4.8-second range. O'Neill calls those times "like really, really good stuff. Probably 4.4 to 4.6 would be really good . . . I'd be happy with those. If your punts are going 40 to 45 yards with those times, they're never getting returned in college. I'd be talking more in that range; 4.6 to 4.8 is great but I think if I'd be hitting those (times) my punts would be under 40 yards. I don't think my leg strength is all the way up there yet; I've still got a lot of work to do."
He felt the need for more work was especially at the end of last season, when fatigue crept in.
"Absolutely, there's no doubt in my mind - and it was weird to feel that way because I didn't think that could come with punting," he said. "The practices at the end of the year, it was really hard to keep the leg strength and flexibility. And with the games getting colder and the wind coming up, those were things I hadn't experienced.
"In the Arizona game (in Folsom Field on Nov. 12), there was like 70 mile an hour wind . . . just horrible. And in Utah (at Salt Lake City on Nov. 25), it was freezing with a brisk wind coming across. Just being a part of those definitely adds experience. You can't replicate those things in practice. When it's 25 degrees and there's a wind blowing, you're not inclined to go out and kick, you know? In a game you just have to go out and do it. I think that mixed with the fatigue of my leg surprised me . . . this year, with the experience and the mental strength I've definitely improved and I'll be ready for it."
Oliver needed off-season surgery to repair a shoulder injury suffered against Southern California when he picked up a blocked field goal attempt and was crunched. "My shoulder popped out kind of badly," he said. "It was irritating and would come out from time to time and get sore for about a week and be on my mind. It's nice to be completely done."
Four of five of Oliver's misses in 2011 were blocked kicks, including two he drove low into the line in the 42-17 loss to USC. A lack of focus was part of the problem, but there also was the adjustment to kicking off the ground (high school kickers use tees) for an entire season.
"I think that's part of the transition from high school, going from a tee to the ground," Brookhart said. "For the most part he did a very nice job of it, but that's the area we talked about."
Oliver also played soccer, which he says helped him adjust to kicking off the ground. "But you have to be conscious of it," he added. "If you know you're doing it wrong you can almost always fix it. We have film now and we can all figure it out. We know each other and it's nice to have (Justin) Castor there and J.D. knows what he's doing. It's good to get feedback. And if you can watch yourself and hear it from others, that's pretty cool."
But until he gets more experienced at it, it will remain a mental challenge to be aware of. "Everyone says its difficult; I didn't find it too difficult (initially)," Oliver said. "It grew to be an issue as the season went on and I got tired and there was a lack of focus . . . it's a mind game."
Oliver also acknowledged his pair of low kicks against the Trojans "gave me food for thought . . . it was nice to have something to work on over the summer. I focused on the height of my kicks so I wouldn't have to think about it when camp came around."
Believe it or don't, but Oliver contends he feels more pressure during camp competition than in a filled-to-capacity, louder-than-a-runway stadium.
"It's interesting with the whole pressure stuff," he said of his first year kicking at the college level. "I learned there's almost a peak amount of pressure on you and when you pass that point you don't notice any more pressure. Once there are that many people there, it's almost like white noise, which is nice. I find there's more pressure in fall camp practice with competition than there is in games.
"I find myself - and I know it's taboo to say - but I find myself performing better in games under that pressure. I just find because of that white noise and there's so much going on, there's too much to take in really. You just kind of let it go, relax, smile and you're good. I obviously had bumps in the road (in 2011), but it's a game and that's going to happen.
"I find I put more pressure on myself in practices than I do in games. I know if it's game time and I'm there I'm ready. I trust the fact that my coaches wouldn't put me there if I wasn't ready. So there's a confidence in that. But in the getting ready process you're never sure exactly when you're ready. You feel ready all the time but you question it because you're not there yet . . . that's how I go about it. You're out on the field and there's no place you'd rather be. And there's no one you'd rather have doing it than you."
THE INSIDE LOOK AT . . .
Coach: J.D. Brookhart, second season on CU staff.
Returning starters: P Darragh O'Neill, Soph; PK Will Oliver, Soph; SN Ryan Iverson, Jr.
Returnees: PK Justin Castor, Soph.; P Zach Grossnickle, Jr.; H/KOR Justin Gorman, Soph.; SN Keegan LaMar, Fr.-RS; P D.J. Wilhelm, Soph.; PR Paul Richardson, Jr..; PR Keenan Canty, Soph.; KOR D.D. Goodson, Soph.; KOR Kyle Washington, Soph.; KOR Tony Jones, Soph.; KOR Josh Ford, Jr.; KOR Malcolm Creer, Soph.
Newcomers: New returners to be determined in camp.
Key losses: KOR/PR Rodney Stewart; PR Logan Gray; KOR Toney Clemons; KOR Brian Lockridge; KOR Arthur Jaffee; KOR Evan Harrington; P Mark Brundage.
Stat line: Oliver (11-of-16 FGs, 29-of-31 PATs) and O'Neill (38.8 punting average) accounted for themselves very well in their first seasons, but the Buffs were in the 100s in the NCAA stats in punt returns (No. 105) and kick returns (No. 115). In coverage stats, the top two special teams point men - Derrick Webb (33) and Terrel Smith (25) - return, which is good news for a punt coverage team that finished in the NCAA's top 50 (No. 45) in net punting.
Bottom line: With their first years behind them, Oliver and O'Neill should feel settled in and show improvement in their areas. But the Buffs need improvement in both return games. Finding a reliable kickoff return guy last season appeared to be an on-going quest - and there were plenty of opportunities to identify somebody. CU's 69 KOR were the second-most last season in the Pac-12, while its 13 PR were the second-lowest total in the league.
Next: Tight ends
BUFF BITS: If you weigh 325 pounds, it stands to reason that you've got a hearty appetite. Freshman defensive tackle Josh Tupou weighs that much, and Malcolm Blacken, CU's director of speed, strength and conditioning, understands why. "Never seen anybody eat like that," Blacken said. "He might be getting 3,000 calories a meal." An overstatement? Maybe not. Blacken said while the 6-3 Tupou is closer to 330 than 325, a couple of other of the new D-linemen could shed a few pounds of "baby fat" - but not Tupou: "He's pretty good where he is." . . . . Junior center Gus Handler was in full pads Sunday morning for the first time this camp. Coach Jon Embree said Handler, who last month was named to the preseason Rimington Trophy watch list, has had pink eye and sweating would have irritated the condition. In Handler's absence, said Embree, the reps taken at center by sophomore Daniel Munyer, who also plays guard, and redshirt freshman Brad Cotner were beneficial. "You always want three guys ready to go at that position," Embree said . . . . Coming off the first two-a-day work of camp that included some situational scrimmaging on Saturday afternoon, Embree wondered how his players would react to an 8 a.m. Sunday practice. He was pleasantly surprised. "It was good," he said. "They were pretty sharp, not a lot of mistakes . . . more technique stuff than anything. But the intensity was there, their 'want-to' was there." . . . . CU's second day of two-a-day work is scheduled Monday. The week will culminate with the camp's first full scrimmage, which is expected to clarify competition at several positions.