The special teams blunders of the last month have popped onto the radar of Indiana’s coaching staff.
In fact, there is a group text for that.
Anytime they are watching a game and a snap goes astray, or a punt is muffed, or a field goal is shanked, IU coach Tom Allen, special teams coordinator Kasey Teegardin, and quality control coach Ryan McInerney are typing it into their chat. It’s forwarded to the Hoosiers’ video coordinator, who clips the blunder so it can be featured at IU’s next film session.
The garden-variety mistakes have been showcased, but just in the last month, rarer items have entered the special teams lexicon, like the “watermelon kick.” It was brought to life by Cowboys kicker Greg Zuerlein, who laid the football flat on the Dallas turf, sans the tee, and hit a fast-spinning, slow-advancing wobbler that confounded a frozen Falcons hands team.
In the group text, the watermelon went. And rehearsed, it was.
“We have physically executed that with our hands team multiple times already,” Teegardin said.
Properly fielding an onside kick has preexisting significance within the Hoosier football world, considering the effect such a gaffe had on the result of last year’s Gator Bowl with Tennessee. But the IU coaching staff is going beyond identifying the errors that led to the hands team not taking the field on Jan. 2.
They are studying a gamut of special teams foibles that have afflicted college and professional football this fall.
“Every single meeting that we have, every single day, we’ve been showing those clips,” Teegardin said. “Just teaching those guys exactly ‘Hey, this is a situation that occurred.’ We are going to learn from other people’s mistakes and just be ready when the opportunity comes.”
Teegardin’s first season as the Hoosiers’ special teams coordinator certainly comes at an unconventional time. Spring ball and the first run at fall camp were each limited to four practices, which cut into practice time for all phases. It’s about getting up-to-speed ahead of next Saturday’s game versus Penn State, but also trying to conceive of every mental blip that may turn the result against IU.
The concerns are physical, as well. If a quarterback tests positive for COVID-19, it knocks out a nearly irreplaceable player for three weeks. But a kicker, punter, and long-snapper have their own unique skillsets that are just as hard to replace.
IU feels good about their 25-year-old Australian, Haydon Whitehead, at punter and holder. Redshirt sophomore Charles Campbell is a former U.S. Army All-American at kicker, and he hit a clutch kick during a double-overtime win at Purdue last year. Add in sophomore Sean Wracher, considered the No. 1 long-snapper in his recruiting class, and the Hoosiers are well set in those spots.
But the Hoosier coaching staff has seen other teams forced to play with their third- and fourth-string snappers because of COVID — sometimes with sub-optimal results. That makes someone like Jake Wellman, a freshman from Indianapolis, so much more important as the backup long-snapper. Junior tight end Matt Bjorson and freshman defensive backs Bryson Bonds and Liam Zaccheo have also been getting reps snapping in practice.
“We have had Haydon work with at least five different long-snappers at this point — and short-snap, as well, because it is a different skillset, right?” Teegardin said. “We’ve got about five that I’m confident in, that have taken live reps in practice with an opponent squad coming at them, and put them in some pressure situations. That’s another position, we’re just trying to prepare for the worst.”
The specialists are aware of how much rides on their successes and failures. But that’s where it helps having a veteran leader like Whitehead, who not only commands the respect of Campbell and Wracher but also the offensive and defensive players who line up for the Hoosiers’ special-team units.
On extra points, Teegardin can hear Whitehead barking orders to the Hoosiers’ offensive linemen, and “Those dudes are listening.”
“Special teams is one of those things, it’s fourth down, and it’s it. You don’t get a second chance,” Whitehead said. “I think the message is looking at those games the first couple of weeks (and) how important special teams have been to the outcome of the game. It’s just do your job as best you can. We’ve been fortunate enough to have somewhat of a fall camp that has been relatively normal, although it’s a bit delayed.”
In his quest for perfection, Teegardin does have some help. Allen, a former special teams coordinator himself, came into the offseason saying he wanted to lend more of his attention to the special teams phase. Not only did the Hoosiers have their onside-kick hiccup in the Gator Bowl, but a fake punt that wasn’t supposed to be a fake was costly at Penn State last season.
Those errors — plus a myriad of others that have entered the Allen-Teegardin-McInerney group chat — are outcomes the Hoosiers want to do a better job of limiting in 2020.
Watermelon kicks and the like.
“It’s just in those game-type situations where you have to expect the unexpected, sort of speak,” Teegardin said. “It’s been good just to bounce ideas off of (Allen). He puts me in tough situations where I have to make checks and calls very quickly in practice. It’s been great practice for me.”
(above photo courtesy of IU Athletics)