The View From Here: The Kicking Game | Syracusefan.com

The View From Here: The Kicking Game

SWC75

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I’m old fashioned. I prefer “The Kicking Game”, (which includes returns) to the bland “Special Teams”. The Carrier Dome should be heaven for kickers and we have no excuse for not having top punters and place-kickers. The last two years we have had two fine place-kickers. Ryan Lichtenstein, a walk-on rescued us from a problem two years ago and kicked 13 of 17 field goal attempts and 27 of 28 extra points. He didn’t have a lot of range- the 40 yarders tended to barely make it through the uprights- but he was accurate. Last year he was beaten out by Ross Krautman, who had a great year, going 18/19 on field goals and 30/32 extra points. He was just as accurate but had more range. They are both back and we are all set with the place-kicking.

It’s the place holding that is a concern. Two years ago, the first controversial move of the Marrone era came when, instead of doing the traditional thing- making the back-up quarterback the holder so he could run or throw a pass if the play was somehow botched- he chose punter Rob Long to be the holder. He recognized the truth of the matter: a holders ability to throw a pass is like a pitcher’s hitting ability: it’s not the real reason he’s out there. Long saved the team time and time again by taking errant snaps and getting the ball down with the laces in the right place so that Lichtenstein and then Krautman would have a easy time kicking the ball straight at the uprights. I would go as far as to say that his ability to do that was almost as significant as his contributions as a punter. I’m not saying Marrone can’t find a guy who can do the job but he’s unlikely to find someone who can do it so well.

There were problems last season finding someone who could find the end zone on kick-offs. Krautman was tried but came up short too many times. Long did better but he’s gone. If the other team keeps catching the ball at the 10 yard line, they are going to break one eventually and get consistently good field position when they don’t.

It’s arguable that both Rob Long and his predecessor, Brendan Carney, were the MVPs of the team every year they were here. With an unproductive offense, kicking the ball out of trouble was essential in trying to keep us in games. And those guys could really boom it. It kind of spoiled us and we may see the other side of the coin this year. Long’s replacement was supposed to be Jonathan Fisher, 6-1 209 and the best punter in New York State and one of the country’s top punting prospects last year. The punter in the spring game was 5-8 182 Shane Raupers, who had been a scholarship player but walked out on the team. He was allowed to rejoin it as a walk-on. His foot was equally unpredictable, spraying the ball in all directions but not very far. But no matter, Fisher was on the way.

I saw Fisher play in a high school all-star game. I saw some excellent kicking- long, high punts and accurate place kicks- from the other team’s guy, who was going to Temple, (until he ripped up a knee late in the game). Fisher looked pudgy and his kicks were inconsistent. He didn’t look like a big-time kicking prospect. In fall camp, he’s been unable to beat out Raupers, which is alarming. After years of watching majestic punts, our greatest strength is going to be, at best, an adventure this season. If we have a highly productive offense, that may not be a critical problem. But if we don’t, we are going to be in big trouble.

Each kick is potentially a big play. If we can block some kicks, that can produce some big scores. Many a game has turned on such a play. All the speed Shafer has assembled can be used on special teams to produce that result and give us some good “gunners” when defending against returns. But the big thing is to get big returns ourselves. This was another major failing in recent years. With an unproductive offense, we needed big kick returns to augment it and we have had a hard time getting them. G-Rob seemed to have the idea that a punt was just a change of possession and his punt returners could be seen lifting their arms to signal for fair catches before the punter’s foot hit the ball. On kick-offs, our returners didn’t have that option. They didn’t have much blocking, either.

In 1997 Quinton Spotswood returned 4 punts for touchdowns and Kevin Johnson returned 2 kickoffs for scores. Johnson got two more in 1998. Since then, (other than blocked kicks for scores): Jamel Riddle got punt returns for scores in 2001 and 2002 and Marcus Clayton one in 2003. Max Suter returned a kick-off for a score in 2007 and Mike Holmes did one in 2008. That’s been it since the glory days of Spotswood and Johnson, who played for the highest scoring teams we’ve had since the ’59 national champions. Their returns were part of the three ring offensive circus we had back then. What a difference they might have made a decade later. What a difference they could make now.

I think our best returners could be Dorian Graham and Jeremiah Kobena. Both have the potential to take it all the way at any time. Graham filled in for Prince-Tyson Gulley when he was injured last year. Gulley averaged 21.8 yards per return and had a couple of fumbles. Graham seemed stronger and more sure-handed and averaged 24.5, almost breaking a couple. I think it’s important to have two kick-off returners who both have the potential to go all the way: if one serves as a sort or scout and blocker, the opposition will kick the ball to him every time.

Mike Holmes was our punt returner last year and did a decent job, averaging 10.3 yards per return. His back up was Stephen Rene, who returned three for 6 yards before being hurt. He’s hurt again and I hope that Graham or Kobena will get a shot here.

We need consistent place-kicking and will get it if we get consistent snaps and holds. The punting is a strength that could be a weakness. The kick returning could be dynamic if we get the right people out there. Whatever help we can get from the kicking game for field position and scoring will be much appreciated.
 

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