North Texas Daily

Position battles, uncertainty loom over special teams as season approaches

Position battles, uncertainty loom over special teams as season approaches

August 12
14:22 2018

Matthew Brune | Senior staff writer

Just two seasons ago in his first year, head coach Seth Littrell had two of the greatest specialists in North Texas history in punter Eric Keena and kicker Trevor Moore.

Now, both have graduated and had stints in NFL camps, and with the recent dismissal of last season’s starting punter Blake Patterson for a violation of team rules, there is uncertainty at both pivotal positions.

“We have to make sure we get our punter and kicker situation sealed up,” Littrell said. “Someone has to earn the job and be the guy. Those guys are competing and Marty [Biagi] is doing a great job.”

The competitions are in full effect with the season under three weeks away. For the punter job, junior Alvin Kenworthy and sophomore Christian Cole are in the running currently.

Kenworthy appeared in five games last season and had 18 punts but averaged only 36.8 yards per punt, 4.3 yards less on average than Patterson who was on average 2.6 yards less than Keena. However, Cole has not attempted a punt at the collegiate level but has shown some potential to special teams coach Marty Biagi over the offseason, making this a close competition.

“Alvin and Christian are competing for that [punter] spot,” Biagi said. “They’re going through drills on a daily basis, and when it’s time to perform, that’s what we’re watching more than anything. It’s just who can be consistent for what we want to get done.”

The starting kicker spot is similarly up for grabs, but there seems to be more of a leader in the clubhouse after the first scrimmage. Graduate transfer Cole Hedlund is entering his first season with the Mean Green after spending his last four years at the University of Arkansas.

In competition with him are a few young guys along with Cole again. Freshman Ethan Mooney and redshirt freshman Zach Williams both have pushed for the spot, and Biagi has been impressed with their work.

“The guys are competing every day, but more than anything they’re competing against themselves,” Biagi said of the kickers. “They know what they have to do with their form and their technique, and the person who can do that the best will come out on top.”

Hedlund got most of the first team reps at the scrimmage on Saturday with redshirt senior quarterback Quinn Shanbour as his holder. Shanbour has been the holder for a few years and is perhaps the only consistent holder on the team at this point. Hedlund had a good showing in front of his teammates and admits he is slowly getting more comfortable.

“I was able to start working with [Quinn] in the spring, and we’ve really got the timing down and made sure the process is all there,” Hedlund said. “[Quinn] has been outstanding and same with Nate [Durham] — his snapping has been perfect, and it makes my job a lot easier.”

While those jobs continue to be decided, the punt returner from last year has been hard at work sharpening his skills. That is sophomore receiver Jaelon Darden, who had a team-high 10 punt returns in 2017 for a team-leading 11.9 yards per return, including an 81-yard return for a touchdown in his hometown against Rice University.

Darden looks forward to the responsibility of returning punts, but he also has his job as the starting slot receiver to worry about. In order to learn how to balance both and excel in both spots, Darden has been learning from watching one NFL player for a while now.

“Tavon Austin is who I mold my game after, because he’s quick and a little smaller,” Darden said. “I’m very excited [to return punts]. I feel like I can bring even more to the table this year to help us win.”

While there is uncertainty in the special teams at certain positions, the recently added depth on both sides of the ball ultimately helps Biagi and the special teams put more athletes on the field to help cover punts, kickoffs and return them. Something that could mean more big plays from the special teams.

“The older guys are bigger and faster, but you’re seeing with these past few recruiting classes that there is depth [for special teams], and the next person truly is ready mentally and physically,” Biagi said. “You’re also able to take the strain off some guys because you have depth and don’t have to spread everybody out.”

Featured Image: File

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North Texas Daily

North Texas Daily

The North Texas Daily is the official student newspaper of the University of North Texas, proudly serving UNT and the Denton community since 1916.

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