Oregon’s kicking specialists were banished to football’s version of the Island of Misfit Toys in 2017.
While the rest of the Ducks were sweating through fall camp and then preparing for Pac-12 competition under coach Willie Taggart, the placekickers and punters were usually putting themselves through drills on the practice field west of all the action.
Taggart’s special teams coach, Raymond Woodie, was also focused on coaching the outside linebackers.
When putting together his staff, first-year Oregon coach Mario Cristobal took full advantage of the NCAA rule change allowing a 10th full-time assistant.
Bobby Williams, who spent the previous 10 seasons at Alabama, where he worked with Cristobal from 2013 to 2016, is the program’s new special teams coordinator. Cort Dennison will coach outside linebackers for defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt.
“It’s a big difference now,” Cristobal said of the heightened attention to special teams. “Bobby Williams’ impact was felt immediately. Obviously, I go way back with Bobby and got to see it firsthand. It’s oftentimes lost, just in perception, that in 2015, if not for the special teams in the national championship game, we don’t walk out of there with a championship.
“Bobby is fully responsible for the coordination and the calls that go with that.”
Williams was the Crimson Tide’s tight ends coach and special teams coordinator from 2008-15, before serving as a special assistant to head coach Nick Saban the past two seasons.
During the 2015 national championship game, Alabama recovered a momentum-changing onside kick and returned a kickoff for a 95-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter of its dramatic 45-40 victory over Clemson.
“We had some success at Alabama in the kicking game, so we’re bringing some new ideas here,” Williams said during spring practice. “They’ve embraced what we’re doing, and the guys have been all in.
“It will be interesting to see how well we progress and take the next step in development as we move forward.”
Aidan Schneider, who went from being a walk-on to third-team All-American during the past four seasons with the Ducks, was 9-for-12 on field goals and had 42 touchbacks on 84 kickoffs as a senior.
“I think they have a lot of talent there,” Schneider said of the competition to replace him before a recent tryout with the Kansas City Chiefs. “The advice that I would have for them is just be yourself, do what you do.”
Sophomore Adam Stack is in position to become the first player at Oregon to handle both the placekicking and punting duties on a full-time basis since Matt Belden on the Ducks’ 1994 Rose Bowl team.
Stack, the only scholarship kicker on the roster, averaged 38.4 yards on 62 punts as a freshman.
Walk-ons Zach Emerson and Alec Hallman also will compete at placekicker, and strong-legged walk-on Blake Maimone will push Stack at punter.
“It was great to have a year with (Schneider) and bounce ideas off him,” Stack said. “I knew I had big shoes to fill, so it was great to learn from him and see how he carried himself every day.”
Stack was 5-for-5 on extra points in the spring game, and Emerson made his only PAT attempt. No field goals were attempted in the public showcase at Autzen Stadium.
Cristobal is keeping an open mind about attempting field goals, something Oregon coaches seemed squeamish about during the glory days of the blur offense and with Marcus Mariota behind center, entering the 2018 season with a new kicker and long snapper.
“If we feel a field goal helps us in that situation and it’s a makeable field goal, the percentages are relatively high, yeah,” Cristobal said. “If not, and we’re rolling offensively and there’s a lot of momentum going and we feel good about what we’re doing at the line of scrimmage and what the quarterback is doing in our matchup, we’ll let (the offense) ride as well.
“We do want to stay as unpredictable as we possibly can. Because this is such a high-scoring league, you have to take chances. … I’m an offensive lineman, and if it’s fourth down and a coach says stay out there, I’m fired up. I want to stay out there. I don’t want to absorb three guys trying to block a field goal, that’s never exciting for an offensive lineman.”
The Taggart era got off to a fast start on special teams as Tony Brooks-James took the first kickoff of the season for a touchdown in the opener against Southern Utah. The senior is expected to continue his role on special teams while also stepping into the starting running back position.
Darrian Felix, Taj Griffin and Jaylon Redd are also in the mix to return kickoffs, and starting wide receiver Dillon Mitchell also was atop the depth chart at punt returner during the spring.
“We’ve always been able to play the best guys, because it’s one-third of the game and very important,” Williams said. “There are a lot of plays to be made in the kicking game. We also use reserve players, because you can’t use starters all the time. So those guys are going to be a big part of the personnel we utilize. Some of these guys played real well last year on special teams and some were starters.
“We’ll look at doing some of that and look at younger players and some walk-ons. We’re looking at everybody.”
Williams has also coached in the NFL with the Miami Dolphins and Detroit Lions and was the Michigan State head coach from 2000-02.
“It’s a wealth of experience that comes with him,” Cristobal said. “There’s a lot of things he brings to the table that certainly we’re all benefitting from. He’s got a great personality. The players really enjoy being around him. They understand he is making them better and is going to put them in position to make plays.”
Spring rewind: Stack emerged as the frontrunner to replace Schneider. During the spring game, Stack averaged 42.0 yards on two punts, placing one inside the 20-yard line, while Maimone boomed his only attempt 47 yards. Redshirt senior Devin Melendez had a chance to catch Williams’ eye as the primary long snapper with tight end Hunter Kampmoyer also getting reps at the unheralded position.
Fall outlook: The arrival of the rest of the 2018 recruiting class will add to the competition at the kickoff return and punt return spots. True freshman Karsten Battles is a long-snapping specialist who plans to replace four-year starter Tanner Carew, who is now competing for a job with the Seattle Seahawks. Williams will have to get the Ducks prepared for the new kickoff rule that allows returners to call for a fair catch inside the 25-yard line and have it result in a touchback.
Projected depth chart: PK — Adam Stack, Zach Emerson; KO — Adam Stack, Zach Emerson; P — Adam Stack, Blake Maimone; KR — Darrian Felix, Tony Brooks-James; PR — Dillon Mitchell; LS — Karsten Battles, Devin Melendez, H — Blake Maimone, Braxton Burmeister
Thursday’s position review: Defensive line