Mid-Season Report Card-inal: Special Teams
We are now at the mid-season mark, arriving in excellent shape with a 5-1 record and a third-place position in the Pac-10. Our bye week came at a perfect time so our specialists units can rest up and get ready for Washington State this Saturday. Not to mention, many of the players had midterm examinations to take last week.
Now it's time for my own midterm examination of how the Cardinal Special Teams have been performing this year from a kicking and punting standpoint. I will break up my analysis to cover each separate unit.
Our offense has been so explosive and efficient this year that Nate Whitaker (#39), despite uncharacteristically missing three extra points already this year, is on pace to shatter the single-season record for total extra points. Mike Biselli currently holds the record when he converted on 49 extra points in 1999. If we continue on this pace on offense for the rest of the season, Nate will have 56 extra points for the season. He is currently 28-31 on extra points this season.
Extra Point Analysis: B
Positive Aspects - Nate has shown excellent height on his extra points, making the "jumpers" on the opponents' block teams virtually a non-factor as he is also quick in getting his kicks off. Nate also kicks the ball with a lot of emphasis, by "driving" the ball. I like that he kicks his extra points the same way he would kick a 40-yard field goal. Some kickers let up on their extra points, trying more to aim the ball than kick with regular power.
Area to Improve - Going forward, Nate really needs to focus harder on getting his hips square to the uprights when kicking his extra points. He has had too much of a tendency to push his kicks to the right, just inside the uprights. Against USC, when Nate attempted and missed his last extra point at a crucial time of the game, he overcompensated and hooked the kick. So, as we go down the stretch, Nate will need to become more consistent with his body alignment.
Field Goal Analysis: A+
Positive Aspects - With the exception of having three missed extra points, Nate is a superb 10-10 on field goals. At this pace, he will eclipse the Stanford single season record of 19 field goals by John Hopkins in 1988. Nate has the opportunity to post what could be argued to be the best single season of all-time for a Cardinal kicker. Dating back to last season, Nate has connected on 15 straight field goals, which I do believe is another Stanford record (Knock on wood!). His key attribute on approaching each field goal attempt is his ability to relax at all times. He invites the pressure, instead of hiding from it.
Area to Improve - Nate needs to avoid scaring us with any more missed extra points, late in close games. However, in all seriousness, there have not been any holes in Nate's field goal-kicking. He is "in the zone" now, where the uprights look a mile wide to him right now. The key will be seeing how he bounces back if he misses a field goal to see if he can get back on track. There are highs and lows for everybody, so let's see how he handles adversity.
Kick-off Analysis: A-/B+
Positive Aspects - Nate has been steadily improving on his kickoffs as the season has progressed. 15 of his 46 kickoffs have gone for touchbacks (32.6%), which is not too bad. The nice thing is that a good amount of his touchbacks have come as of late, which is an encouraging sign that he is turning it around and improving in this area of his all-around game. The aspects of Nate's kickoff approach in which he truly excels, and that I like to see, are his ability to keep his head down going through the kick and really using his body weight in addition to his leg strength to drive the ball deep.
Area to Improve - Nate has done a good job working with our Special Teams staff to correct any weaknesses with his kick-offs. The only advice on improvements that I would give at this time is to know when to drive the kick-off for a touchback (i.e. when the wind is at your back or no wind at all). Trying to drive a kickoff into the wind, although it may travel to the five-yard-line, gives the return team a chance to set up for a nice run back. Nate will need to be consistent in his judgment as to what type of kickoff to perform.
In his first year as Stanford's starting punter and holder, Daniel Zychlinski has done an admirable job despite only being called upon 12 times in the first six games. He is likely to be on pace to have one of the fewest punting attempt totals in Stanford history for a full- time punter, certainly in the past 50 years. In fact, he may not even end up with enough punting attempts to qualify for the Pac-10 punting title.Again, it's the Cardinal's offensive prowess that has kept him on the sidelines (well, until we score that is).
An interesting statistic is that Daniel has held for 41 kicks in addition to his 12 punts, so at least he gets to see the field in one way or another. Currently, Daniel is fifth in the Pac-10 with a 44.9 yard average in a conference where all 10 starting punters are averaging more than 40 yards per punt. Tough competition, but Daniel is only 1.7 yards per punt away from moving up to second in the rankings.
Punting Analysis: A-
Positive Aspects - Daniel worked extremely hard in the off season, determined to win the punting job. He waited patiently for two years, and it has paid off thus far. He has been very reliable in getting his punts off quickly, and for a first-year regular punter, he has good field presence. Usually, first-year punters get tunnel vision and don't feel the rush to know if they have to make adjustments to avoid having their punt blocked. Daniel appears to have a natural ability to balance feeling the rush while staying focused on his technique. Daniel possesses a very strong punting leg, which is a good thing when utilized to the punt cover team's advantage.
Area to Improve - Out of the 12 punts Daniel has had this season, three of them have been over 50 yards. Sounds impressive, but that is not always the case. Daniel has out-punted our opponents by a margin of 6.6 yards per punt (44.9 to 38.3). However, our opponents have the slight edge on us in "net" punting, which is the punt distance minus the return yardage. The breakdown on net punting is (35.2 to 35.9), giving our cover team a deficit of 0.7 yards per punt. It might not seem like much, but when you look at 44.9 yards netting 35.2 after the return, we are allowing 9.7 yards per return. Whereas with our opponents averaging 38.3 per punt and netting 35.9, they are only allowing 2.4 yards per return.
That is a big discrepancy! So my point of improvement for Daniel is to focus his leg strength more on getting better hang-time and staying at around 40 yards per punt instead of kicking 55 yard punts, which can lead to potentially more lengthy and dangerous returns.
There is no question that outstanding Special Teams play is going to be key to finishing strong. We are still very much in the hunt for a Pac-10 title, and at the very least, a major Bowl Game. Until next week, GO CARDINAL!
About the Author: Aaron Mills kicked and punted at Stanford University from 1990-94 and was an Honorable Mention All-Pac 10 as a punter in 1993. After graduating from Stanford and having reconstructive knee surgery in 1994, the Satellite Beach, Florida-native was invited to participate in the annual NFL Combine in Indianapolis in 1995. A 6-0, 180-pound specialist, he ended up kicking for the San Jose Sabercats of the Arena Football League in 1995-96, playing an integral part in San Jose 's road to the AFL Western Division title in 1996. That same year, he set an Arena Football League record by making a 63-yard field goal against the Florida Bobcats, which tied the long-standing NFL record (held by Tom Dempsey 1970 & Jason Elam 1998). Aaron retired from kicking after the 1996 season to pursue a career in real estate while continuing to work with aspiring kickers and punters. He has been a featured expert on www.Kicking.com. Aaron and his wife now make their home in lively Las Vegas, Nevada.
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