Texas special teams a challenge for Missouri

Thursday, October 22, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 12:29 a.m. CDT, Friday, October 23, 2009
Texas' Jordan Shipley looks for running room on the way to a 74-yard punt return for a touchdown Oct. 10 against Colorado. Shipley leads the Big 12 in punt return average with more than 16.4 yards per return.

COLUMBIA — Through the first six games of the 2008 season, Jake Harry punted a total of 10 times. This year, as the Missouri offense has struggled, that number has jumped to 28, and a player who was once an afterthought has become someone who is often among the players populating the postgame interview room.

And it's wasn't merely volume that made Harry and the rest of the Missouri special teams a story before the Tigers traveled to Oklahoma State last Saturday.

It was success.

Before last week's game, Harry was averaging 44.95 yards per punt, good for second in the Big 12 Conference, and kicker Grant Ressel led the conference in field-goal kicking accuracy.

But against the Cowboys, Missouri failed to give itself a distinct advantage through its kicking or return teams for the first time all season. Harry averaged only 30 yards per punt. Through three quarters, the Tigers' average starting field position was their own 17-yard line. Over the same three quarters, the Cowboys' average drive began at their 39-yard line.

"We've been a pretty good kicking game all year, but we struggled last week," Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said.

While the dip in special teams efficiency could be seen as the exception to the Tigers' success so far, several members of the team's special teams units understand how important it is to quickly regain the upper hand in the kicking game.

Because when No. 3 Texas arrives in Columbia on Saturday it will do so with some of the most dangerous special teams in the country, and against a team that has the talent on the both sides of the ball that the Longhorns possess, an advantage for Missouri on special teams may never be more crucial.

"We're definitely more concerned with (special teams) playing against Texas," junior linebacker Andrew Gachkar said. "They're ranked in the top three of every category."

The threat that Texas poses in its return game begins with senior wide receiver Jordan Shipley. Much like senior quarterback Colt McCoy, Shipley has been a staple of the Texas program for what feels like forever to the Missouri players and coaches. And along with his ability to change a game on the offensive side of the ball, Shipley leads the Big 12 in punt return average with more than 16.4 yards per return.

"Shipley's a beast," senior linebacker Sean Weatherspoon said. "We might have to not give him a lot of opportunities."

"He's a good special teams player all around in my opinion," junior kick returner Jasper Simmons said. "When it comes to kick returning, he can make a big play anytime."

Shipley's speed as both a receiver and a returner is usually the part of his game that's lauded by opponents, but Simmons said that it's Shipley's quickness and ability to make small cuts that sets him apart from other returners.

Shipley's abilities as a returner make it easy to understand how Texas is the No. 2 team in the conference in team punt return average. But that ranking is outdone by what the team has done on kickoff returns. The Longhorns lead the Big 12 and are second in the Football Bowl Subdivision with an average of 32.1 yards per kickoff return through their first six games. But the most frightening part for opponents?

It's had little to do with Shipley.

The senior has returned just two of the 18 kickoffs the Longhorns have fielded this season. The majority of the damage has been done by freshman running back D.J. Monroe, who has averaged over 42 yards per return and has taken two of his nine attempts in for touchdowns.

Pinkel said his team's special teams preparation won't involve any dramatic changes or different points of emphasis. He said that it's just a matter of replicating the practice habits that led to his team's success through its first five games.

But one of Pinkel's top special teams contributors knows that this week will require something a little different to contain the Longhorns.

"You can change up your schemes, but not as much as not kicking to someone," Gachkar said. "We don't really do that here. We'll kick to Shipley, I know we will. We just harp on getting down the field as fast as possible."

Gachkar also said the coaches have discussed some personnel changes on the Missouri special teams this week. While many programs attempt to give starters a break in the kicking game, the Missouri coaching staff is making an effort to get some of its top defenders on the field as often as possible.

"We've always said that if you need a blow, you need a break, you take it on defense," Gachkar said. "Special teams, you go out there and act like that's your starting spot."

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