Texas Tech Football: Special Teams Must Improve In 2017

TEMPE, AZ - SEPTEMBER 10: Texas Tech Red Raiders sit on the bench before the college football game against the Arizona State Sun Devils at Sun Devil Stadium on September 10, 2015 in Tempe, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
TEMPE, AZ - SEPTEMBER 10: Texas Tech Red Raiders sit on the bench before the college football game against the Arizona State Sun Devils at Sun Devil Stadium on September 10, 2015 in Tempe, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images) /
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The Texas Tech football team received an underwhelming performance from its special teams in 2016.  That aspect of the team must improve dramatically this year for the Red Raiders to return to a bowl game.

Coaches often pay lip service to the importance of special teams.  However, fans commonly overlook the importance of the kicking game despite the fact that special teams are often the difference in close games.  For Texas Tech to have a successful season this year, the Red Raiders’ special teams must transform from a liability to a strength.

Most expected the Texas Tech kicking game to be improved in 2016 after the hiring of highly-respected veteran special teams coach Joe Robinson.  Unfortunately, his presence did not lead to instant success during his first season.

Texas Tech ranked last in the Big 12 in kick off return average (17.5 yards) and net punting average (35.1 yards per punt).  In addition, it ranked ninth in kickoff coverage (39.6 net average per kick), eighth in PAT average (.929) and sixth in punt return average (9.5 yards).

In fact, the only aspect of special teams in which Texas Tech was above average was in field goal percentage.  Tech converted 13 of 14 tries from sophomore place kicker Clayton Hatfield.

In all, special teams blunders cost the 2016 Red Raiders dearly.  In fact, a handful of mistakes in the kicking game may have been what prevented Texas Tech from reaching postseason play.

The issues began in week four against Kansas when punter Erik Baughman dropped a punt in the end zone and was tackled for a safety.  While that mistake did not cost Tech the game, a huge mistake in the next game may have.

Kansas State’s Byron Pringle returned a kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown at the end of the second quarter to put the Wildcats up 31-24 at halftime.  That play stole the momentum from the Red Raiders and was a huge turning point in a game Tech lost 44-38.

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Special teams once again cost Texas Tech dearly against Oklahoma State.  After Tech battled back to pull to within one point on the road with just 1:44 to play, Hatfield missed the extra point leading to a 45-44 loss.  On the season, Hatfield missed five PATs but none was more costly than his miss against the Cowboys.

This year, Robinson must not only eliminate the catastrophic mistakes from his special teams, he must find a way to get his unit to be part of a winning formula.  With a young defense that is expected to struggle again, the special teams could greatly help by flipping the field or by simply keeping the Red Raiders out of impossible field position situations.

The punting game could improve with the presence of JUCO transfer Dominic Panazzolo who averaged over 41 yards per punt last season.  He is also a great twitter follow because of the trick punts he often posts.

In addition, the coverage units could receive a boost from the influx of JUCO defensive backs that the program signed in February and the addition of more depth at positions like linebacker and defensive end.  For far too long, Texas Tech has had to rely on starters to man many of the special teams positions.

That is not an ideal strategy because it puts tired players in position to have to cover kicks while also increasing the number of plays starters have to play.  The 2017 Red Raiders will have plenty of young players that must be counted on to be special teams regulars.  The key will be for Robinson to ensure that they do not make the critical mistakes that last year’s team did.

Texas Tech also needs more from the return game.  Senior inside receiver Cam Batson has the speed to be a deadly punt returner and junior inside receiver Keke Coutee has shown flashes of being a force on kickoff returns.  Both must contribute more this season and be part of improving the Red Raiders’ field position.

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Special teams will be critical in 2017 because this Texas Tech team is not talented enough to overcome poor special teams play.  No game on the schedule will be a given so the Red Raiders kicking game must be improved this fall to help turn the tide in Tech’s favor.