Special teams gets special focus

AUSTIN, Texas -- Duane Akina is desperate to beat Fresno State.

Never mind that the Bulldogs are not on Texas' schedule. Or that this week's opponent is another team from the Mountain West, Wyoming. It's Fresno that he is after.

"We are a little disappointed that Fresno State blocked 10 [punts/kicks] last year so they passed us," said Akina, who doubles as the secondary coach and a special teams coach. "They have 66 and we are now second with 64, and that doesn't sit good with us. We have been No. 1 in the nation for the last six years, I believe, in blocked kicks. So we are out to go get that back."

For Akina to make mention that without being directly asked indicates that the Longhorns are slightly more than "a little disappointed." And for Mack Brown, in the face of a year-long quarterback controversy, to say special teams is priority No. 1 is an indication that Texas does not want to be disappointed in that area of the game.

"What we're trying to do, we're trying to have the best special teams we've ever had," Brown said. "We'd like to lead the country, and you've got to put your best players out there to do that. And if every time they punt to us we've got a chance to block it or return it for a touchdown, that gives us a chance to win a tight ballgame."

There might be more than a few tight games for Texas. With a still unproven offense, at least as it relates to the passing game and explosive plays, the Longhorns will have to find extra yards and maybe even points on special teams. Such was the case last season against Iowa State (blocked punt for a touchdown), Oklahoma (kickoff return for a touchdown) and Oklahoma State (kickoff return for a touchdown).

Additionally, because this Texas team leans more on its defense, the kicking game should come into play. That's why Texas has eight kickers and punters on the roster.

"We feel like our kicking game can be the best we've had, and we have really, really worked hard on it," Brown said. "All the coaches are involved, except Bryan Harsin and Bo Davis, and really Major [Applewhite] and Duane Akina have done a great job with it. So we are excited about it."

The enthusiasm has been tempered slightly due to Anthony Fera again aggravated a muscle pull in his leg. The Penn State transfer was to be the starting kicker and could punt as well. Now the kicking, for as many as three weeks, will be turned over to freshman Nick Jordan and/or walk-on Nick Rose. Alex King, a transfer from Duke, will handle the punting.

The Fera setback is seen as but a hiccup in the grand plan. Texas can most likely make it through the first three games without the need of a game-winning kick or even a clutch field goal. But when it comes to Big 12 play, the Longhorns want to lean heavily on and depend on their special teams.

Think of it this way: Basically, Texas wants to mirror what it did against Texas A&M, albeit with a little less drama.

Of course there was the last-second field goal in that game. But there was also Quandre Diggs' 81-yard punt return and a kickoff return to the 35 to set up the game-winning drive. Even the opening kick of the second half, in which Texas forced A&M to start at its own 9, has been pointed to by the Texas coaching staff as crucial to the Longhorns' success in that game.

"Hidden yards," Akina called them.

Not so hidden that Texas will be unable to find them again. Texas will once again have Diggs back to return punts and kicks. He will split time on punt returns with Jaxon Shipley. D.J. Monroe will join Diggs on kick returns. The backups on kick return will be Marquise Goodwin and Mykkele Thompson.

Texas has also more closely scrutinized who will participate on every special teams unit. Josh Turner could play on as many as five special teams units. Mykkele Thompson, Kendall Thompson, Ryan Roberson, Sheroid Evans, Jeremy Hills, and Tevin Jackson will play on as many as three.

"We are meeting more than we've ever met," Brown said of the personnel decisions. "We've done more live stuff. We've had two kicking game scrimmages that we usually put into the scrimmage, so we're excited about watching that next Saturday."

By Saturday, Brown means the Wyoming game, against Texas' actual opponent. As for beating Fresno State? Well, Akina might have to wait a week or two.