July 25, 2007

Depth chart: Are special teams special?

The Boston College special teams play has been up and down over the years and last season was no exception. For every big return by speedster Jeff Smith, there was also a miscue. Will this unit improve in 2007?

Punter: Johnny Ayers, Billy Flutie

Ayers enters his senior campaign this season and has plenty of experience with almost 200 career punts. He has improved in each season with his average yardage per punt. He has been a very solid punter the past three seasons and looks to continue that success. If there has been one knock on Johnny it is that he takes too much time to kick the ball. As a result he has seen his share of punts blocked over the years. He has, however, also improved in this area with only one blocked punt last season. Johnny misses every spring, as he is also an IF/OF on the baseball team. This past season he was second on the team in average, on base percentage, and slugging percentage.

With Johnny playing baseball, Flutie was the primary punter this past spring. He had his share of struggles and it is questionable whether the coaching staff looks at him as the heir apparent in 2008. Billy is more of a jack-of-all-trades than he is a Division I punter, kicker, or quarterback. But a Flutie can never be doubted, particularly in Chestnut Hill.

Kicker: Steve Aponavicius, Billy Flutie

Steve was a remarkable story last season. From Super Fan to the kicker of the Boston College football team in one year. Ryan Ohliger was always on the verge of losing the mental battle of being a kicker and it was walk-on Aponavicius who came through when the team really needed him. With Ohliger, every extra point and chip shot field goal had become an adventure. Steve does not have a strong leg and has not shown the ability to hit a field goal of greater than 40 yards. However, he makes the kicks you can't afford to miss. He was 24/25 in PAT's, his lone miss being in the bowl game versus Navy where he atoned for the miss with the game winning field goal from 37 yards out with no time remaining. Steve may not have a strong leg, but he has the mental make up to nail the kicks he is supposed to. That is a welcome change for BC fans. Steve received a well-earned scholarship for this upcoming season.

Flutie is presently the back up kicker and punter. Difference is, incoming freshman Billy Bennett will surely be supplementing him as the back up kicker this upcoming season. Many thought Flutie was going to become the place kicker when Ohliger got himself into trouble. However, he lost that battle to aforementioned walk-on Aponavicius when he did not display the consistency that Aponavicius did. Many even believe incoming freshman Bennett will supplant Aponavicius as the kicker next season. Bennett will certainly perform kickoff duties due to his very strong leg, but don't pencil him in yet for FGs and PATs. Aponavicius has proved he can make big kicks under immense pressure. Bennett has a long way to go before he proves he is capable of that.

Long snapper: Jack Geiser

Jack is a wonderful long snapper. Ayers has always taken a bit too long to get his punts off, but he had a great long snapper in Francois Brochu to help keep that time down with accurate, strong snaps. With a freshman snapper it could have been a recipe for disaster, but Ayers did not miss a beat with Geiser replacing Brochu. Jack went unnoticed last season, which is every long snappers goal (just ask Trey Junkin). Jack is a bit undersized but has sufficient size at 6-2 230 lbs. to hold enough ground against oncoming rushers.

Kick Returner: Jeff Smith, Brandon Robinson

Jeff, as a true freshman, led the ACC and was in the top ten nationally in kickoff return yardage last season. He averaged 28 yards on 23 returns and had a long of 96 yards for a touchdown. Jeff is explosive and has sprinter speed. He took over the Clemson game last season, something rarely seen at Boston College from a returner. As a kickoff returner Jeff was named to the ACC All Freshman team, as well as the Sporting News ACC All Freshman team. The surprise factor is gone but great returners manage to continually get their hands on the ball and make plays in special teams. Jeff may be raw as a positional player, currently at running back, but he is already quite adept at returning kicks.

Brandon saw time in the spring retuning kicks. Depth is always needed in the return game. Brandon has the speed and elusiveness to make an impact returning kicks if called upon due to injuries.

Kick Returner: DeJuan Tribble, Andre Callender

DeJuan has been the "other" guy back returning kicks for two seasons. This past year it was with Jeff Smith and the year before that it was with Will Blackmon. DeJuan is a dynamic playmaker when he has the ball in his hands, but he does not quite have the straight-line speed to be a top-notch kick returner. He does provide a very good second option though and averaged 23 yards on eight returns last season, with a long of 50 yards. It remains to be seen if he will return kicks this season. His value at cornerback is immeasurable and he already returns punts. With Jeff Smith as the primary kickoff returner, it may be prudent to find another second option.

Andre has been rotated in as a kickoff returner the past two seasons and has four returns for a 26 yard average. He is a very solid returner that would likely see more time returning kicks if it were not for his importance at tailback.

Punt Returner: DeJuan Tribble, Brandon Robinson

Arguably the most difficult task on the football field is returning punts. Simply catching a punt cleanly is a difficult task. With the opposition flying down the field looking to take your head off, only makes it that much more difficult. DeJuan was the secondary option to Will Blackmon in 2004 and 2005 but performed exceptionally. He returned 20 punts for an average of over 12 yards and two touchdowns. Last season he became the primary punt returner and averaged 8.7 yards on 27 returns with a long of 69 yards. One area where DeJuan has struggled over the years is ball security when fielding punts. Like it has been pointed out, fielding punts is not an easy job. However, whoever gets the job must field the ball cleanly. That is the primary objective before anything else, as games are lost when the ball is coughed up on special teams. With almost 50 punt returns to his credit at BC, he should be one of the top punt returners in the ACC.

Brandon has practiced taking punt returns, particularly this spring. It is imperative to have a handful of players who can return punts in case of injuries, as it is a skill that can't be taught overnight. Many want to see Jeff Smith back returning punts, but returning kicks and punts is very different. When returning kicks the returner needs to find the best hole and hit it like he is shot out of a cannon. Jeff excels at this with his sprinter speed. When returning punts the returner needs to field the ball cleanly under immense pressure, then use shiftiness and elusiveness to make the first potential tacklers miss before he can put the jets on. Jeff has the ability to become a very good punt returner but he will likely not be supplanting DeJuan this season and at this point Brandon looks like the best back-up option.

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