BOULDER – When the Colorado Buffaloes opened 2-0, Toby Neinas opened with more than one “Oh, no” – or perhaps something more descriptive following “oh.”
CU’s special teams – especially on punt/kick coverage – were hardly that in wins against Colorado State and Central Arkansas, allowing 284 yards in return yards in the opener (including a 74-yard punt return for a touchdown) and 138 return yards in the second game.
Neinas is CU’s special teams coach, thus the “ohs” and scarcity of “ahs.” In the succeeding four games, even though three of them have been losses, the Buffs appear to have adjusted their kick coverage and overall special teams play.
But don’t think Neinas is resting easy. He acknowledges the improvement, but adds with a knowing smile, “All it takes is one and you’re terrible again . . . we’re like one block away on (kickoff returns) a couple of times – and so are they. It’s one day, one game, at a time.”
When tape of CU’s coverage issues in games one-two began filtering out to upcoming opponents, Neinas expected to see replays of what CSU and Central Arkansas had attempted in their return games. His expectations were met.
CU’s last two opponents – Arizona State and Charleston Southern – borrowed the strategy. “They went to school on that . . . they both got away from what they normally do,” said Neinas. But his coverage teams held fast. Both ASU and CSU (the out-of-state version) picked up on the middle return concept that gashed CU early in September.
“I’m just pleased they didn’t have the same result,” Neinas said. “Maybe we’ll see it again Saturday (against Arizona) because they tweak their stuff a lot. We’ll find out.”
The Buffs’ early difficulties in coverage, said Neinas, fall on him. Will Oliver’s kickoffs and Darragh O’Neill’s punts were “hit well enough that we should have covered them. That’s more on me . . . that’s how you know that there’s something wrong, that you’re not getting your point across. You see that you have a number of people inside the 35 and even on the 20 when the guy’s catching it and they’re still ripping you, there’s something wrong with that. If you have five or six guys within the 25 when (the returner) catches it you should pin him. Even if they don’t tackle him, at least you get him moving laterally where he’s not getting vertical.”
Of Oliver’s 31 kickoffs, 17 have been returned and 13 have been touchbacks, including six into or out of the end zone. Neinas and the coaching staff have wanted most of Oliver’s kickoffs to be directional, “but out of the end zone in the direction they want it is the best-case scenario,” he said. “Then again, if you pin them deep with hang time you have a better opportunity for a better result than a touchback. But I think they’d rather play it safe and get a touchback; they obviously haven’t complained.”
With Justin Castor out for the season following an upper leg injury suffered before the opener, Oliver has handled all of CU’s kicking. In addition to his kickoffs, he’s made nine of 10 field goal attempts and all 15 of his PATs. He is second in the Pac-12 in field goal percentage (90.0) and tied for fifth in field goals per game (1.50).
Oliver’s off-season changes in his kicking style were subtle, but even so, they helped his confidence. “Part of it is getting older and having already been through a couple of seasons and getting used to the rhythm,” he said. “I wouldn’t say I expect what’s coming, but I feel prepared for the possibilities of each week. I’m settled when I get to game day; it’s just another game day. I’m pretty comfortable and pretty used to it now.”
His increased leg load isn’t overbearing. “Not at all,” he said. “It’s actually pretty nice. You warm up with a field goal or a PAT before the kickoff. You get out there and kick again in pretty quick succession. It hasn’t really changed much.”
Nonetheless, Neinas wants Oliver’s right leg to still be live come mid-November. “Will has a good strong leg, but we have to be real careful with him . . . a lot of times when you watch film on guys, they’ll start off the year banging touchbacks. But by the time they get to the end of November, the ball is coming down at the ten (yard line). It’s not they’re a different guy, it’s that they’re tired. We have to be very careful, but I’ve been very happy with the way Will has hit the ball.”
Another source of happiness has been kickoff return specialist Ryan Severson, a freshman who’s fourth in the Pac-12 Conference with his 23.5-yard average on his 12 kickoff returns. He returned kicks at Valley Christian High School in San Jose, Calif., taking three back for TDs and prompting teams to kick elsewhere. He says he’s “very comfortable” in that role although “obviously it’s a bigger stage and the speed is faster. But we practice it a lot here and that helps.”
A fleet 5-10, 200-pounder, Severson signed on with CU as an athlete who was to be given looks at running back and/or linebacker. He’s settled at weakside linebacker (although he hasn’t played there yet) and on special teams. He’s been used on punt coverage as one of the wide “gunners” and on kick coverage, although a sore hamstring limited his use on kickoff coverage. He has eight special teams points.
Severson was a high school teammate of CU coach Mike MacIntyre’s son, Jay. When Severson was a junior, he played in a Valley Christian backfield that included seniors Byron Marshall (Oregon) and Jarrod Lawson (San Jose State). “It was pretty elite – definitely a force to be reckoned with in high school,” Severson said. “It was a lot of fun playing with them. And they were good guys; they’re good friends and we still stay in touch.”
Neinas says Severson, who has been timed in 10.7 seconds in the 100 meters, has the rare knack as a returner to “run to darkness.” That would be opposed to running to daylight for a tailback – and that might be easier than the run into the unknown.
“The thing about Ryan that makes it nice – No. 1 he’s a good football player, No. 2 he is willing to run to darkness, which is a hard thing to do as a kick returner,” Neinas explained. “At times you’re going to run and there’s going to be no daylight there. To me, it’s one of the toughest parts of a kickoff return play . . . it’s a timing play in an enormous amount of space. There are going to be times when the timing of it is a little off; it won’t be clear at the beginning or it will be clear or it will be dark – then it will open. You have to be willing to run to that area we ask you to run to.
“Not everybody is willing to do that. A lot of times your ‘home run hitters’ will get in there and look for the home run and start chopping their feet and they get hunted down like an animal. You need a guy who’s just willing to bang it up in there with a kind of an old I-back mentality. Sometimes that thing springs just perfect and other times it gums up.”
Neinas said Severson’s return team teammates “are getting better, moving people better with better leverage and that’s helped a lot.”
Arizona does not have a player in the top eight of the Pac-12’s kick return statistics and its top punt returner, sophomore Johnny Jackson, is averaging 8.5 yards on 13 returns. In punting, Wildcats sophomore Drew Riggleman is ninth in the conference with a 38.0 average, while O’Neill is sixth at 41.6 (36.2 net).
All of Oliver’s 10 field goal attempts were in the first four games, but he doesn’t expect that inactivity to continue. “The last couple of games I haven’t been asked to do too much, but I’m ready,” he said. “I imagine this (Saturday) will be a close one and kicking is going to be necessary. It’s going to be fun.”