The kick return game was not impactful for the Texas Tech football program in 2019 and that’s the one area of special teams in which the 2020 Red Raiders must improve.
Year one with special teams coordinator Mark Tommerdahl was a rousing success for the Texas Tech football program. Still, there remains work to be done in one key area of the third phase of the game.
With over 30 years of experience as an assistant coach, Tommerdahl is one of the most highly-regarded special teams coaches in the game. And in 2019, he worked wonders with a pair of freshman kickers.
Punter Austin McNamara was named a freshman All-American after averaging 45 yards per punt. The true freshman from Arizona was the main reason that Tech ranked No. 4 nationally and No. 1 in the Big 12 in net punting by averaging a gain of 42.5 yards on every punt.
Meanwhile, no one expected redshirt freshman placekicker Trey Wolff to be as solid as he was in his first year as Tech’s kicker. The Spring, Texas native hit 20 of 22 FG attempts (90.9%), the second-most makes in school history for one season.
But while it is reassuring to be solid in the kicking game, Tech has to be better in the return game. That’s because kickoff and punt returns can have the biggest impact of any aspect of special teams.
When returning kicks last season, Tech was not able to make much happen. In fact, there were only four kick returns of note.
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In regard to punt returns, the Red Raiders were one of the worst teams in the nation statistically. Ranking No. 90 in the FBS and No. 8 in the Big 12, the Red Raiders averaged just 5.8 yards per return. That’s simply not going to help turn matters in a close game.
The main return men were corner Zech McPhearson and walkon RB Chux Nwabuko III, each of whom had one return of significance to his name. McPhearson returned one for 27 yards against OU in Norman but being as it came in the fourth quarter of a game that had been out of hand since the first quarter, that play had no impact on the outcome, a 55-16 Sooner snoozer.
Nwabuko’s best return on the season went for 22 yards vs. TCU. That return was impactful because it set Tech up at its own 49-yard-line and four plays later, the Red Raiders would be in the endzone to take a 28-27 lead early in the fourth quarter.
When it came to kickoffs, more Red Raiders had their opportunities. In addition to the two above players, Tech also used freshman Dadrion Taylor and sophomores Ta’Zhawn Henry and KeSean Carter to return kickoffs. That latter of those two had Tech’s only returns of any significance.
Henry had the longest return of the year, 63 yards against TCU in the first half. With Tech down 24-3, he nearly took it to the house in the second quarter, and had he not had to change the angle of his return to avoid a referee, he would have been gone. Still, that return led to Tech’s first TD of the afternoon as the Red Raiders began to claw out of a 21-point hole. That’s a reminder of just how much of a momentum swing a good return can have.
A week later, Carter brought back a kickoff 41 yards against Kansas State. With Tech down 20-10 in the third quarter, the speedy WR allowed his team to begin its drive at the Wildcat 49. Six plays later, the Red Raiders would score on an Erik Ezukanman 21-yard TD catch.
What’s important to note is that three of these four returns led directly to touchdowns. That’s why Tech needs to be better in the return game this fall.
After all, we saw how two returns against the Red Raiders completely changed the game in a negative way last season and could have been what kept Tech out of a bowl game.
Leading Baylor 6-3 at halftime in Waco, the Red Raiders had completely stymied the Bear’s offense and had taken the home crowd out of the equation. But when Tech allowed a 60-yard kickoff return to its own 36 to open the second half, it gave the home team new energy. Baylor would score a TD on that drive on the way to 30 points in the second half and the spark was that kickoff return.
Even more crushing was the 100-yard TD return by Kansas State’s Joshua Youngblood. With his team ahead just 13-10 in the third quarter, he provided the game-changing play when he took one to the promised land. That answered a SaRodorick Thomspon TD and snatched the momentum back from the home team. It was a huge turning point in the 30-27 KSU victory.
Texas Tech isn’t a program that is going to overwhelm Big 12 teams with its talent. Thus, the margin for error is thin and most conference games are going to be tight.
That’s where the return game can make an impact this year. Tech needs to find some playmakers who can break games open with timely returns a la Wes Welker, Danny Amendola, and Jakeem Grant. If Tommerdahl and the rest of the staff can bring this part of the special teams up to the level of the FG and punting units, Tech could be the best all-around team in the Big 12, and perhaps the nation, when it comes to the all-important third phase of the game.