Brent Lewis / The Denver Post
Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer
It’s fair to say the Colorado football team hasn’t been at its best on special teams at the start of Mike MacIntrye’s first two seasons as coach.
It’s also fair to say special teams are an enormous area of concern for CU fans going into the season because of that recent history and also because the team will have a new punter, place-kicker and holder this year.
The coaching staff has kept the poor starts in the kicking game the past two years in mind as they prepare for their third season in Boulder.
“One thing the head coach has done with the leadership of the program is he has made a bigger emphasis to the team this year about starting off well in coverage units,” special teams coach Toby Neinas said when reminded about the rough starts in 2013 and 2014. “I’m certainly thinking about that a lot because I am very much aware of that.”
In 2013, the Buffs gave up a 74-yard punt return for a touchdown in the season opener and also had trouble covering kickoffs, allowing Colorado State to average 38.4 yards over five returns. In 2014, the Buffs allowed the Rams to average 29 yards on kickoff returns in the opener. In both years CU didn’t seem to get on track on special teams until later in September.
“We’re stressing it just like we always have,” MacIntyre said. “I think the good thing is most of our special teams people, even a lot of the backups, have been in that situation a lot. So hopefully they’ll be ready for everything.
“We’re focusing on it hard and I feel like we’re better at it. I feel like that just because the kids understand it better and understand the sense of urgency of running down just one time, how big that can be.”
Neinas acknowledged that Colorado State special teams coach Jeff Hammerschmidt got the best of him the past two years and said he is very much focused on Hawaii, the opponent in the season opener this year, hoping to avoid a three-peat.
MacIntyre has been talking up the advantages of having older, more experienced players all offseason. Neinas believes that will also make an impact on special teams. Most of the players on the two-deep depth chart for the kickoff, kickoff return, punt and punt return units have been on the field in live situations.
“We’re improving,” Neinas said. “We certainly aren’t there yet. The biggest improvements that I’ve seen have been in some of the older guys because they understand a little better what we’re looking for in some of the techniques and some of the drills. So in that respect, I think the team has elevated its play a little bit.”
Punt return is one area in which CU would like to improve its results. This coaching staff’s top priority when it comes to punt returns is fielding the ball cleanly. MacIntyre and Neinas both believe punt returns are becoming less and less relevant in the college game because it’s much easier to cover punts with all players allowed to leave the line of scrimmage at the snap.
CU averaged just 5 yards on only nine returns the entire 2013 season. The averaged improved slightly to 6.5 yards on 18 returns on 2014. Wide receiver Nelson Spruce handled all the returns two years ago and most of them last year, but coaches wouldn’t be disappointed to see another player step into that role this season so they don’t have to expose Spruce to injury.
Jay MacIntyre, Shay Fields and Ken Crawley are candidates for the job. Crawley and Fields have experience returning punts at the college level while MacIntyre probably has the surest hands of the threesome.
“You can certainly say that we want to ensure possession of the football on that play,” Neinas said. “It’s our philosophy, certainly. Do we want more out of that play? Yeah, and hopefully we’ll be able to get more out of that play, but the No. 1 priority and the philosophy of the program is to ensure that we get a clean exchange of possession.”
Neinas said freshman punter Alex Kinney has looked good so far in camp. He is primarily practicing at punter and is not truly involved in the place-kicking competition, though Kinney could still add that to his duties down the road.
Kinney, a product Rocky Mountain High School in Fort Collins, was rated as high as the No. 3 punter in the nation in the 2015 recruiting class.
“He’s a strong, strong guy,” Neinas said. “When he gets a hold of one, it can really go. We’ve just got to help him get a hold of more. I think that Alex has a chance to be a very good football player.”
Neinas said he has liked a lot of what he has seen from both Diego Gonzalez and Chris Graham, the two players vying for the starting place-kicker job. Gonzalez, a lefty, is fully recovered from a sports hernia that limited him last season, and Graham, right-footed, has continued to make steady progress.
“I think we have a lot of power in the group,” Neinas said. “It’s just consistency, that will be the key for us, making sure that we’re hitting the areas we need to hit. Make sure we’re putting the ball through the uprights. That’s the thing right now that we’re trying to address.”
Kyle Ringo: twitter.com/kyleringo