Sooners leaky kickoff coverage unit up for Florida challenge

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- There's been a disconnect all season long in Oklahoma's kickoff coverage.

The Sooners seemingly have the same kind of athletic ability and speed that has always marked coach Bob Stoops' teams.

But they haven't tackled very well in space, providing opposing teams with good field position all season long on their kickoff returns. It's made Oklahoma's kickoff coverage unit perhaps its most vulnerable weakness heading into Thursday's FedEx BCS National Championship Game against Florida.

"We just haven't been disciplined all the time," Oklahoma safety Lendy Holmes said. "It seems like we couldn't get off our blocks or just run the wrong gap. It's been a problem, but hopefully it'll get better in this game. It better be."

Oklahoma has struggled with poor coverage all season, allowing opponents to average 24.1 yards per kickoff return to rank 105th nationally. It's their third-worst performance in covering kickoffs since the program began compiling statistics, topped only by two seasons in the Sooners' John Blake era in 1996 and 1998.

Oklahoma has allowed four kickoff returns for touchdowns this season to lead the nation. And on several other opportunities, it has been blistered on plays that nearly went all the way.

And the weirdest part of the equation is that Florida offensive coordinator Steve Addazio, who handles the Gators' kickoff return unit among his many duties, has a solid scouting report for the Sooners after studying his opponents.

"I think they've got a good kickoff team," Addazio said. "That's from what I've seen on tape. They've got a lot of speed and it's as fast of a coverage as I've seen."

The Sooners have worked on the problem all season but it just hasn't improved. They allowed a 97-yard kickoff return to Cincinnati's Mardy Gilyard in the season's second game. Texas' Jordan Shipley hit them for a 96-yard return that was arguably the biggest play of that game, pulling the Longhorns out of an early 11-point hole and sparking a 45-35 comeback in Oklahoma's only loss. They were also gashed for a 98-yard touchdown by Texas A&M's Cyrus Gray and a 90-yard TD by Oklahoma State's Perrish Cox.

Repetition would seemingly make the Sooners better in their kick coverage. Oklahoma's explosive offense has led the Sooners to cover 119 kickoffs this season -- 12 more than any other team in the nation.

"It's something we've got to do better," Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said. "We've worked a lot and feel like we've got the right players out there. Now, we just have to go out and play."

Stoops said he's particularly concerned against Florida, whose speed and athleticism, he thinks, are the best of any team the Sooners have faced.

The Sooners will especially be challenged Thursday night by Florida kick returner Brandon James, who ranks fifth in the Southeastern Conference with a 23.7 yard per kick average.

James has heard about Oklahoma's struggles in the kicking game. To say the least, he's intrigued about the challenge of playing them.

"Of course, hearing about that makes me interested," James said. "They are great athletes and with them giving up the returns they've done, I'm very excited about it. Getting a big return is something that's in the back of my mind."

James said he's been disappointed with his season. He's looking for his first kickoff return for a touchdown and has not broken one longer than 52 yards. He had six kickoff returns for 30 yards or more in the first six games of the season but only two in the last four.

"We came close a couple of times but just missed," James said. "It's something we've really concentrated on trying to get better the last few weeks. I'm excited to see what happens on Thursday."

As are the Sooners. Oklahoma linebacker Travis Lewis knows that the Sooners can't afford to allow the big plays that have so far marked their season through kick returns.

He said the Sooners' work against Missouri's Jeremy Maclin in the Big 12 championship game provide him with confidence that they will play better against the Gators.

Maclin, one of the nation's top special teams players, averaged only 18.9 yards per return in that game and had no return of longer than 30 yards.

"You know, we haven't given up a touchdown when I've been out there on kicks," Lewis said, chuckling. "I guarantee we won't have problems with this game. Everybody is fired up and everyone wants to get on the field. We've got a lot of athletes hauling down the field. I don't think we'll have any problems with special teams because of that."