Special Teams continued to be a unit of extremes in 2009, with Mizzou once again featuring the most accurate kicker in college football, along with a solid punting unit, and while the return game didn't produce as much in 2009, it wasn't a liability. But kickoff coverage absolutely was. What will change in 2010?
Grant Ressel (6'2, 190, Jr.)
2009: 26-for-27 FG (Long: 46), 39-for-39 PAT
2008: 1 punt, 43 yards
RPT: All I can say is that going into 2009, I was waiting for a karmic kick in the junk as God's retribution for Mizzou having a nearly automatic kicker in Jeff Wolfert. Ressel was so damn good that the balancing of the karma scale never came in 2010, so it's official: I'll be wearing a cup for every game next season in full anticipation of the football gods exacting their particularly spiteful brand of revenge on me through the kicking game.
Bill C.: Having suffered through the horrific kicking woes of 1998 and 2004, I say we've already gotten our kick in the junk. Hell, if we'd had either Wolfert or Ressel in 1998, we'd have gone at least 9-2 in the regular season. Now, that's not to say I don't also feel the need to wear a cup ... it's always a good idea as a Mizzou fan.
Seriously, Ressel was just awesome in 2009. Not only did he fill the shoes of Wolfert, the most accurate kicker in NCAA history, but he was better. He had better range than Wolfert did as a sophomore, he made a game-winning kick against Mizzou's biggest rival, and ... I mean, his only miss all season was a 40+ yarder in a monsoon against Nebraska! Aside from mixing in a 60+ yarder somewhere in there, it's just not possible for a kicker to have a better year than Ressel had in 2009, and ... well, the next time a Mizzou kicker misses a PAT, it's going to feel as unfamiliar as it is disappointing.
Trey Barrow (6'1, 185, So.)
Moberly's own Barrow was expected to challenge for the place-kicking job last spring, until Ressel decided to go and be super-human anyway. If he sticks around, he'll get his shot at both the punting and kicking job in time, but for now, well, we've got ourselves a kicker.
Matt Grabner (6'4, 200, Jr.)
2009: 1 punt, 38 yards
A big dude who spent time on Ole Miss's team at one point, Grabner looked competent in his one kick last season, and though that's not what one would call a large sample size, it's something. One thing is certain: Grabner has large shoes to fill. Jake Harry mastered the art of looking iffy at best in the spring, then doing quite well in the fall, and his left foot was the main cause of Mizzou ranking 4th in the country in Net Punting last year. Mizzou has a really nice punting scheme in general, mixing rugby-style kicks with more straight-ahead ones; it gives opponents fewer attempts at blocks, and combined with nice return coverage, it's a nice system overall. Whether Grabner wins the job, or maybe Barrow, or possibly Ressel pulling double-duty, they will need to succeed at a pretty high level to avoid a drop-off for Mizzou in the punting game in 2010.
Jasper Simmons (6'1, 205, Sr.)
2009: 36 returns, 22.6 average
Wes Kemp (6'4, 220, Jr.)
2009: 6 returns, 22.7 average
Kendial Lawrence (5'9, 180, So.)
2009: 12 returns, 18.2 average
Okay, so Mizzou was tops in the country in kick accuracy and fourth in net punting. They were also 80th in kick returns and 83rd in kick returns allowed. It's hard to analyze the kick coverage game; we can't exactly log the returnees and newbies on the coverage team very easily, and even if we could, there probably wouldn't be too much value in it. All I can say about it for sure is, it's been a weakness for most of Mizzou's recent history.
Here are Mizzou's rankings in the Opponent Kickoff Returns category for the last six seasons:
- 2004: 91st
- 2005: 103rd
- 2006: 73rd
- 2007: 53rd
- 2008: 94th
- 2009: 83rd
Now, we do know that, for a while there, Mizzou was using more starters in the kick coverage game (primarily because of how terrible the scrubs were at it), and in the last couple of years they might have gotten away from that. With the severe increase in the number of true freshmen tearing off their redshirts, the staff may feel the need to get them some playing time, and kickoff coverage seems like a decent place for somebody young, fast, and aggressive. If this is the case (and I'm purely speculating here), then they might want to re-think that strategy. Most other aspects of special teams have been good or great in recent years, and I have to think they'll eventually get this one figured out too. OU went from 103rd in this category in 2008 to 28th in 2009, so a quick turnaround is certainly possible if the staff figures out the right combination of personnel.
As for the kick return unit, I have to say I'm relatively optimistic that 2010 will see improvement. Returns were iffy at best for most of the first two-thirds of the season, but Mizzou was pretty consistently getting out past the 30 yard line for the last handful of games. Kendial Lawrence seemed to want to do too much back there, but Jasper Simmons and Wes Kemp both ended up being pretty capable of taking what the coverage gave them and breaking off decent returns. I can't remember more than one time when I thought Simmons might break off a touchdown return, but while we were spoiled by Jeremy Maclin in that regard in 2007-08, the most important function of the return team is to just set the offense up with decent field position.
The main question for this unit is, can a newcomer or redshirt freshman do just as well as Simmons and/or Kemp in the role? Simmons seems to have potential, but as Mizzou's most important safety, there's injury risk there that makes me a bit uncomfortable. Meanwhile, Kemp is a smart runner lacking in top-end speed. Best-case scenario is that you have a smart and fast runner back there, and if nobody emerges I'm comfortable with Simmons, Kemp, or a year-wiser Lawrence. I'm very curious about three newcomers, however: Tristan Holt, Jimmie Hunt and Marcus Murphy. Holt and Hunt in particular (you could possibly throw Xavier Smith and E.J. Gaines into this mix as well) seem to have the right combination of size and speed that you would want from a return man. True freshmen are often like Lawrence -- trying to do too much -- so I'm not going to predict that Holt wins the job or something ... but it certainly wouldn't surprise me.
We won't know anything about the return unit, however, until August.
Carl Gettis (5'11, 195, Sr.)
2009: 22 returns, 7.1 average
Brandon Gerau (6'0, 175, Jr.)
2009: 3 returns, 7.3 average
Technically, the punt return depth chart is a lot like kick returns. You've got a solid option in Gettis, who also got better in the role as the season progressed, but he got hurt on a punt return against Nebraska, and it is well-covered territory what happened when Gettis went out. Meanwhile, Gerau is a guarantee to field the ball cleanly, but he's not going to score any touchdowns back there. If somebody like Holt/Hunt can step in and steal the job away, great. Gettis appears pretty good at what he does back there, but he is so counted upon elsewhere that if somebody else emerges, give him the job. If nobody emerges, there are worse options in the world. We'll see.
2010 vs 2009
You never want to assume greatness from a kicker -- kickers have, through the years, been notoriously fickle. One bad kick could bring about 17 more. But with the way Ressel played in 2009, and the preparation Mizzou's coaches seem to have figured out in terms of how to produce steadiness in the kicking game, you have to at least be pretty comfortable with Mizzou's place-kicking situation. It's near-impossible for Ressel to be better in 2010, but he'll be good, and I am okay with the thought of Grabner/Ressel/Barrow at punter (until I have a reason not to be), Simmons/Kemp/? at KR and Gettis/Gerau/? at PR. Really, whether this unit is a net positive (like it was in 2009) or a great unit depends on whether Mizzou can at least improve their ranking to around 60th in Opponent Kick Returns. Do that, and this is potentially the best special teams unit in the North. Struggle in that department, and NU probably gets the nod.