Special teams coach Jaime Christian and head coach Tony Levine spend extensive time each week working on schemes to assure that they will win each special teams match-up.
“Them two together are great minds,” said special teams sophomore Earl Foster. “It’s just amazing. They know their players and put us in position to make good plays with their schemes.”
Whether it’s redshirt freshman B.J. Singleton’s game-changing block at UTSA on Sept. 28, senior punter Richie Leone’s leg that pins opponents deep in their own territory or freshman kickoff returner Demarcus Ayers’ ability to put the offense in good field position, the simplistic scheme Christian and Levine conduct to the group has experienced success.
“As long as I’ve coached special teams, the 10 guys that have been covering punts for us certainly protected the punts and then covered the punts, and covering our kickoff is as good as I’ve been around,” Levine said, who has coached special teams for 12 years.
Foster has been noted for his key block on a BYU defender that allowed Ayers to return a kick 95 yards for a touchdown on Oct. 19. UH’s kickoff return team is averaging better than 26 yards per return — tied for seventh-best in the nation.
“We keep it simple,” Christian said. “(Levine) and I put our minds together, spend time on the scheme and try to keep it simple for the players so they can relate to what we’re doing so they can play fast.”
Foster plays all four phases on special teams: kickoff, kickoff return, punt and punt return. Last season, he had only two tackles in 12 games, but after 10 games this season, he already has 19 and has been a valuable part of the group.
“Every little thing is just as important, because the slightest mistake can cost you, such as a blocked punt,” Foster said. “The main thing I would say we do best is cooperate and be on the same page when it comes down to those situations.”
The return game has paid dividends, as the Cougars have shown a drastic improvement from last season. It has helped the offense with better field position by allowing it to start shop on average at the 34-yard line, compared to last season, when it started at the 27-yard line.
Leone has been named a semifinalist for the Ray Guy Award, a recognition that is presented to the nation’s top punter. His 42.9 yards per punt have forced his opponents to start at their own 25-yard line, a six-yard improvement from last season at the 31-yard line.
Other than being an important piece on special teams, Singleton also plays defensive line, so the coaches said it is important to keep him fresh in and out of rotations. But Singleton keeps his motor running in both phases, regardless, because he knows that a special teams play can be the difference between winning and losing.
“That’s the important part of the game that everybody overlooks, and I think that’s why we’re so good at it — because we make that a strong focus heading into the game. (Levine) spends a lot of time and effort with the special teams. He gives me the freedom and puts me in a spot to make plays,” Singleton said.
Singleton is tied for second in the nation with three blocks, but said he feels he should have about six. He said junior defensive lineman Joey Mbu has been a huge difference in the scheme: Mbu, who is 6-foot-3 and 318 pounds, draws a lot of attention in the middle and has forced double teams, opening gaps for Singleton to make the play.
There will always be areas to improve, but that’s not something the unit constantly hangs over their head. They keep it simple. Singleton said he and the team recite Levine’s saying: ‘Do what you do. Don’t do anything more. Don’t do anything less.’