, Muskogee, OK

December 27, 2013

Sooners’ special teams have been special

By John Shinn
CNHI News Service

— NORMAN – Before the season began, Oklahoma made a commitment to improve its running game. The goal was to take pressure off its defense, shorten games and limit the defense’s exposure.

There was another essential ingredient to OU becoming a better team. The Sooners’ special teams had to play at a very high level.

The emphasis on the running game somewhat limits the offense’s big-play potential. Field position becomes more important.

Look back at the Sooners’ 33-24 victory over Oklahoma State Dec. 7. The Sooners won that game with their offense on the field for just one touchdown – with less than a minute to play.

Special teams was responsible for two of the other three with a punt return from Jalen Saunders and a fake-field-goal pass from holder Grant Bothun to kicker Michael Hunnicutt.

“There were a lot of things that went on in the football game that you can be very proud of. The guys played hard,” special teams coordinator Jay Boulware said. “I’m pleased, not to the extent that I’m saying everything went perfect, but there were a lot of things that went our way that day.”

Those same things need to happen when the 11th-ranked Sooners (10-2) face No. 3 Alabama (11-1) Jan. 2 at the Sugar Bowl.

Bringing in Boulware as special teams coordinator prior to this season has been a boon.

The Sooners have won games because of their special teams play this season. Michael Hunnicutt has turned into one of the best kickers in the nation. Saunders has averaged 63.6 punt return yards over the last two games, scored two touchdowns and set up a 3-yard touchdown drive with a return.

It hasn’t been by fluke. The Sooners have heavily emphasized special teams this season. Saunders said special teams film study rivals the video work he does at the receiver spot.

“(I) know where the punter is going to punt the ball exactly, how their guys come off blocks and what not. I take a lot of time during the week to prepare for our opponents,” Saunders said.

OU coach Bob Stoops is adamant these aren’t new parts of OU’s game plans. Boulware is the first “special teams coordinator” since Jonathan Hayes left the staff following the 2002 season. The position was filled by a variety of coaches in a variety of ways in the decade before Boulware was hired 10 months ago.

“Jay’s done a great job. I think it’s like anything. Sometimes your guys hitting the ball are a little bit better or more experienced. You get caught and some years you’re not. We’ve always worked them really hard,” Stoops said.

Boulware refuses to beat his chest.

“It’s about our players. It’s never about us as coaches,” he said.

The value of special teams, however, is magnified under extreme circumstances. The Sooners’ 2008 national championship bid was greatly hampered by their lack of a consistent kicker and their struggles covering kickoffs.

The Sooners are back in a BCS bowl game despite averaging just 422.5 yards and 31.8 points a game. Both are OU’s lowest averages since 2006.

The Sooner defense has vastly improved, but so has the squad’s special teams’ impact.

“I like the guys we have hitting the ball. They’re doing a really good job and the guys around them are doing a really good job in what we’re asking them to do,” Stoops said.

Scoring what would be one of the biggest upsets in OU history in the Sugar Bowl won’t likely be done without another big special teams performance. Or, at least, something like the one those units have put together their last three games.