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July 27, 2012

Preview: ST will bounce back


MORE: Bustin's accuracy eases minds | Free 30-day trial

Texas Tech's special teams put up good stats in 2011. The Red Raiders ranked second in the Big 12 in net punting, fifth in kickoff return yardage, punter Ryan Erxleben put up the best numbers of his career and Donnie Carona connected on 14-of-16 field goal attempts inside the 50-yard line.

Those stats don't tell the whole story, however. Losses to Kansas State and Texas A&M can directly be linked to special teams failures -- two blocked field goals, one returned for a touchdown, and a kickoff return for a touchdown. Two Keystone Kops-like mistakes against Oklahoma State -- a fumbled punt return in the first quarter and a fumbled kickoff return in the second -- helped the Cowboys put the game out of reach by halftime. In the season's second-to-last week, a coverage gaffe in the second half against Missouri kept the Tigers in the game and helped them cut Tech's lead to three.

If the Red Raiders are going to return to the postseason, those kinds of mistakes simply cannot happen.

POSITION VITALS
Texas Tech's specialists were above average to good in 2011, but mistakes at critical points by coverage and protection units marred the team's overall special teams performance. The Red Raiders should be better on that side of the ball in 2012, but the real test will be whether or not the special teams units can avoid the kind of back-breaking and game-altering gaffes that have plagued the team for the last two seasons.
THE BASICS
Returning Starters: Ryan Erxleben (12)

Others Returning: David Brenner, Ryan Bustin, Alex Chester, Kramer Fyfe

Newcomers: Trent Williams

Departures: Donnie Carona, Bradley Hicks, Jesse Smitherman
2011 NUMBERS TO KNOW
Texas Tech's punt coverage unit was excellent last season. The Red Raiders ranked second in the Big 12 in this category, netting 38.02 yards per punt.

The Red Raiders also ranked in the top half of the conference in kickoff return yardage, averaging 22.02 yards per return.

Ryan Erxleben averaged 41.68 yards per punt last season, which is the highest for any Tech punter since Jonathan LaCour averaged 42.62 yards per kick in 2007. LaCour only punted 29 times that season, though, compared to Erxleben's 57 attempts in 2011.
BATTLE TO WATCH
There really won't be any legitimate position battles on the special teams units when fall camp opens. Placekicker Ryan Bustin was very impressive in the spring and punter Ryan Erxleben is coming off of a very solid sophomore season. Alex Chester will be the team's new deep snapper, Austin Zouzalik should retain his punt returner job and Bradley Marquez and Javares McRoy have been penciled in at kick return for some time.
What sticks out about those critical mistakes is that most were largely due to ancillary failures, not errors from the roles that immediately come to mind when one thinks of special teams -- placekicker, punter, deep snapper.

Tommy Tuberville thinks those areas will be improved this fall.

"This year with more depth we'll be better, we'll have better kickoff coverage teams," he said. "We gave up a couple of kickoffs for a touchdown last year that really set us back. As you said, we had field goals blocked with backup offensive linemen in the game that were true freshmen that needed to be over there watching instead of playing.

"But we're growing up. We're getting a little more depth. We're getting to a position now where we're a little bit more selective on who plays, and normally it won't be a first-year guy. It's going to be a guy that's been out there and done that and learned the hard way sometimes and gotten good experience."

[ More RRS: How new rule changes may help Tech ]

If the protection and coverage units can avoid key mistakes, the Red Raiders' special teams units should be much improved in 2012.

Erxleben returns for his third season as Tech's starting punter after putting up solid numbers as a sophomore in 2011. The Lake Travis product averaged 41.68 yards per punt last year -- the best mark for a Red Raider punter since 2007 -- and helped the team finish the season ranked second in the conference in net punting.

Ryan Bustin, Carona's replacement at placekicker, was one of the biggest surprises of the spring. For the first three or four weeks of practices, he simply did not miss.

"I'm not going to jinx him," Tuberville said two weeks into spring practice. "I'm not going to say anything. He's doing good. He's only missed one -- knock on wood -- in about 40 kicks. I don't think he got a real good hold on that one (that he missed)."

Bustin transferred to Tech last year after spending the 2010 season at Kilgore College, where he pulled double duty as the team's placekicker and punter. During his time at Kilgore, Bustin was perfect on PATs and converted 13 field goal attempts.

Alex Chester will assume the primary deep snapper role for the Red Raiders this fall after backing up Jesse Smitherman last year.

NEW FACES: The only newcomer on Tech's special teams roster is deep snapper Trent Williams, a transfer from Blinn College.

[ More RRS: Why Austin Zouzalik is Tech's punt returner ]

PRESSURE IS ON: Ryan Bustin. The Kilgore College transfer was extremely impressive during the spring, displaying both excellent accuracy and surprising leg strength. Bustin set the bar pretty high, and now he'll have to shoulder the burden of expectations.

BIGGEST QUESTION: Can Bustin duplicate or come close to duplicating his spring performance? Having an automatic three points on the sideline will make things easier from a playcalling perspective on Tuberville and offensive coordinator Neal Brown.


PRE-CAMP DEPTH CHART
The Red Raiders' specialist depth chart lacks any real intrigue. Ryan Bustin will be the team's placekicker, Ryan Erxleben will be the punter, Kramer Fyfe will be the kickoff specialist and Alex Chester will handle snaps. There really aren't that many questions about the return game (not listed) either, as Austin Zouzalik is expected to return punts for the third-straight season and Bradley Marquez and Javares McRoy are penciled in to return kicks.
PLACE KICKER
1. Ryan Bustin SO-RS Bustin was one of the biggest stories of the spring for the Red Raiders. He was extremely accurate, especially during the spring's first few weeks.
2. Kramer Fyfe SO-SQ Fyfe, a Lake Travis product, redshirted in 2010 and was a member of the scout team last year.
PUNTER
1. Ryan Erxleben JR-2L Ryan Erxleben averaged 41.68 yards per punt last season, which is the highest for any Tech punter since 2007.
KICKOFF SPECIALIST
1. Kramer Fyfe SO-SQ Fyfe has yet to make his debut for Tech, but is currently penciled in to be the team's kickoff specialist this fall.
DEEP SNAPPER
1. Alex Chester SO-1L Chester will be the Red Raiders' primary deep snapper in 2012; he backed up Jesse Smitherman last year.
2. David Brenner FR-RS Brenner, an all-state linebacker in high school, redshirted in 2011 and is expected to back up Chester this fall.




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