Position breakdown: Special teams
With inconsistent kicking and punting and lackluster results on kickoffs, special teams was a major area of concern for USF in 2006. That won't change this fall, especially with the best special-teams asset, punt returner Ean Randolph, now trying to secure a job with the Kansas City Chiefs. Most of the key special-teams contributors are back, and finding improvement will be a preseason priority. We'll break things down one unit at a time ...
FIELD GOALS/EXTRA POINTS: USF went 7-for-15 on extra points last year, and aside from Connecticut (7-for-16) every other Big East kicked at least 16 field goals. Freshman Delbert Alvarado had one of the season's highlights with a 56-yard field goal against Syracuse, a Big East record, but he went 5-for-9 for the year, including three misses shorter than 40 yards. With Mike Benzer off the team, Alvarado has lost his primary competition, so the priority is on keeping him healthy and finding accuracy to match his strong leg. Senior Anthony Severino will be his holder, with walk-on Eric Setser the front-runner for long-snapping duties, ahead of several challengers.
KICKOFFS: Moving kickoffs back to the 30 is a major change, one that will put more balls in play and put more priority on kickoff units. With Justin Teachey handling kickoffs, USF ranked 56th nationally (fifth in Big East) in kickoff return defense, holding opponents to an average of 20.12 yards on returns. The job is Teachey's to lose again, but this unit will face more pressure with the rule changes in place. It also makes it all the more important to limit penalties on kickoffs.
PUNTING: Leavitt lost confidence in Alvarado and Ilia Petrov's ability to consistently field punts, turning the job over to Teachey's rugby-style kicks. While statistically unimpressive, the gimmick did set up a few key fake punts, and Leavitt pointed to that decision as one of last year's smarter moves. Opponents have seen it coming for a year now, so the novelty is gone, leaving the competition open. USF ranked 113th in net punting last year, averaging 30.03 yards. To field just an average unit by Big East standards would add almost five yards to that average, which works out to about 300 yards more in field position over the course of a season.
RETURN SPECIALISTS: USF ranked 107th nationally and last in the Big East in kickoff returns, with no touchdowns and an average of 17.58 yards per return. Last year's top returner, Taurus Johnson, is back, with former walk-on Colby Erskin expected to line up as well. In punt returns, USF ranked 14th nationally, averaging 13.1 yards per return, primarily from Randolph. Erskin is listed as the first option entering the fall, with Marcus Edwards also an option. I think August could be an open call to find a playmaker here, so don't rule anyone out.
PUNT COVERAGE: Only six schools gave up a higher average on punt returns last year, as USF allowed opponents to average 13.95 yards on punt returns. That includes an 82-yard touchdown allowed against Florida International, and a 31-yard return on a blocked punt against Central Florida. In its previous nine seasons, USF had never allowed opponents to average so much as 10 yards on punt returns, so getting back to that level of containment will be a focus in the weeks leading up to the season.
USF doesn't have an assistant coach devoted specifically to special teams, but that means the unit gets a more hands-on role from Leavitt and involvement from most of the assistants. It's a unit that will certainly have their attention this month. Thoughts? Comments? Questions? We'll have news from practice tonight -- should be able to check in during practice, as only the first half-hour is open to the media, leaving some down time all but designated for blogging, no?