FAYETTEVILLE -- Arkansas' shaky special teams haven't cost the Razorbacks a game -- yet.
With the exception of Toby Baker's punting, the Hogs' special teams haven't been all that special during the No. 17 Razorbacks' 3-0 start.
Kicking game comparison
Sizing up the special teams units for Saturday’s game between Arkansas and Texas A&M
Category;Statistic (Rank);Statistic (Rank)
Avg. kickoff distance;62.2 (71);65.1 (2)
Blocked kicks/punts;1 (t11);1 (t11)
FG Pct.;.667 (t61);.900 (t20)
Kickoff returns;18.1 (100);22.3 (55)
Kick return defense;26.6 (116);17.8 (25)
Net punting;42.5 (10);41.1 (25)
Punting avg.;47.7 (6);43.8 (26)
Punt returns;7.2 (63);31.0 (3)
Punt return defense;14.6 (113);6.0 (61)
Touchback pct.;.294 (t84);.720 (13)
If Saturday's top 20 showdown against No. 10 Texas A&M (3-0) in Arlington, Texas, hinges on key plays in the kicking game, the Aggies appear to have the upper hand.
Texas A&M -- which boasts electrifying return men in Christian Kirk, Nick Harvey and Speedy Noil, and strong kicking across the board -- has outperformed Arkansas statistically in every measure of special teams, aside from punting, through three games against a more difficult schedule.
"They've got a great kicker [Braden Mann] who doesn't give you a chance to return the ball," Arkansas Coach Bret Bielema said. "And whoever they want to put back as return guys, they've got more speed than the Olympics."
Both teams have blocked a field goal, although the gravity of Arkansas' block outweighs Texas A&M's.
Aggies safety Justin Evans blocked a 38-yard field goal try against Prairie View A&M in the first half of Texas A&M's 67-0 rout.
Arkansas' 6-10 Dan Skipper got a full hand on TCU kicker Ryan Graf's 28-yard field goal in the final seconds of regulation in a tie game in what turned out to be a 41-38 victory in double overtime for the Razorbacks.
Baker's punting has been the highlight of Arkansas' special teams. The senior from Memphis is No. 5 in the country with an average of 47.8 yards per punt. Texas A&M's Shane Tripucka, nephew of former Notre Dame and NBA basketball player Kelly Tripucka, is not far behind with an average of 43.75 yards per punt, which ranks No. 26.
In net punting, which factors in return yardage allowed, Arkansas is No. 10 while Texas A&M is No. 25.
The Razorbacks' coverage units have struggled, particularly in their first two games, when Louisiana Tech and TCU held better average starting field position than the Razorbacks by 3 and 7 yards, respectively.
"Toby's been sensational," said tight ends coach Barry Lunney, who handles punt coverage. "We all know that. The first week we let a long return happen. Probably kicked a little bit far and weren't ready to cover that distance of a kick."
Arkansas' kicking game blunders in the fourth quarter at TCU nearly cost the Razorbacks the game.
The Razorbacks opened the fourth quarter with a 20-7 lead and the ball, and they drove to the Horned Frogs' 2-yard line early in the quarter. After TCU stopped Razorbacks three times inside the 5, Cole Hedlund's 22-yard field goal, against no rush, clanged off the right upright and was no good.
Later, TCU's KaVontae Turpin returned a punt 34 yards to the 50-yard line when multiple Razorbacks had a shot at tackling him near where he caught the ball. That return set up TCU's touchdown for a 21-20 lead.
"TCU game, Toby did a fantastic job of increasing his hang time," Lunney said. "We were so close to covering the punts very well that day. The guy made a fantastic play. We were right there. We just didn't finish."
After Arkansas tied the game at 28-28 with 1:03 remaining, Turpin returned the ensuing kickoff 64 yards to the Razorbacks' 27. The big return put the Horned Frogs in position to win in the closing seconds before Skipper's big left hand saved the day.
Bielema said injuries that led to new personnel on coverage units have contributed to Arkansas' poor statistics.
Turpin's kickoff return is the longest Arkansas has allowed, but it's not out of character. Arkansas opponents are averaging 26.6 yards per kickoff return, which puts the Razorbacks' No. 116 in kick return defense.
Defensive backs coach Paul Rhoads, who coordinates the kick coverage unit, noted the Razorbacks improved in that area last week, when Texas State averaged 17.7 yards on three returns, but he added: "Overall, we've not done well enough.
"It's been a combination of needing more consistency with both kicks and coverage."
Arkansas kickoff men Adam McFain and Connor Limpert have posted touchbacks on five of 17 kickoffs, a 29.4 percent rate that is tied for 84th in the nation. Texas A&M has touchbacks on 18 of 25 kickoffs (72 percent), which ranks 13th.
Arkansas' kickoff return unit, which ranked 79th in the country with an average of 20.58 yards per return last season, has not found its groove.
The Razorbacks rank 100th with an average of 18.13 yards per return. Dominique Reed's longest return among eight returnable kicks has been 25 yards in the opener against Louisiana Tech.
That's not to say there hasn't been a significant return. Reed brought back a TCU kickoff 22 yards to the Arkansas' 42 with less than two minutes to play after Kenny Hill's unsportsmanlike conduct penalty was assessed on the kickoff against TCU. The advantageous field position contributed to the Razorbacks' touchdown drive during their rally from a 28-20 deficit.
Last week, Reed caught two returnable kicks at the 5-yard line and was brought down at the 18 on both of them.
"It's a unit that I feel we've really got to have a big jump to play well in the SEC," Bielema said.
"I think it's a combination of I have to do a better job of getting them prepared and, you know, last week we saw some things that weren't really conventional with the way they lined up," said running backs coach Reggie Mitchell, who is in charge of kick returns.
"We have a good, solid plan going in this week, so hopefully we'll see improvement in that area."
Bielema suggested the Razorbacks have not revealed their full arsenal on kickoff returns.
"I would say this: We haven't shown a new return yet through three games for a reason," he said. "First game was all new returns because it was a new coordinator. TCU, we put in one play that we used again on Saturday. We haven't shown a lot there, which I think is a good thing."
Sports on 09/22/2016
Print Headline: Quite ordinary; Special teams play a concern against A&M