Special teams is always one of the factors of a football game that nobody really pays attention to until something goes seriously wrong, or the game is on the line. Wake Forest fans have learned the importance of having a good kicker and punter over the past few years, as Sam Swank, Mike Weaver, Alex Kinal, and Ryan Plackemeier have laid a great path for how to be successful at those positions.
The Deacs will likely have a lot of close games this year, and the difference between a 5 win season and a 7 or 8 win regular season could depend on the execution of special teams.
The team knows what it has in punting with junior Dom Maggio, who has handled most of the punting workload the past two years when he has been healthy. Maggio averaged 44.6 yards per punt last year, ranking 18th in the nation in punting average. That was good enough for third in the ACC.
In the kicking game, everything is a lot more complicated, and is, quite frankly, my biggest concern aside from who will eventually be the starting quarterback against Tulane. The Deacs have to replace Mike Weaver, who last year went 21-25 in field goal attempts and broke Brian Piccolo’s single-season scoring record with 115. He also finished second on the Wake Forest career scoring list with 327 career points, only behind Sam Swank’s 337.
Head coach Dave Clawson spoke a bit about how everything was going at the kicking position today after the split-squad practice, and it seems like things are progressing nicely, although I am a bit surprised at who is in the running to be the primary extra point and field goal kicker. This is from the official site:
“(The kicking game is) encouraging more than anything,” said Clawson. “Yesterday both Murph and Sciba had a really good day. I think they were perfect on their extra points and field goals. Zach Murphy, so far, as far as PAT and field goal, has done well. Nick Sciba is very improved. On the kickoffs, I think the two grad transfers are the two battling for it. During our kickoff period the other day, both Eric (Osteen) and Ford, those guys did significantly better than we had anybody do in the spring. We certainly have enough numbers. I think it’s going to come down to Dom (Maggio) as the punter backed up by Ford or Murph. I think the battle for the field goals will be a three-way battle between Murph, Sciba and Ford. And the kickoff job will come down to Osteen and Ford.”
To give some context on the comments above, Wake Forest currently has SIX different players listed on the roster right now, and that doesn’t include Maggio, who is currently only listed as a punter.
Most folks know about Nick Sciba (freshman) and Ben Brown (junior kickoff specialist), but the Deacs also added two grad students to the team in the off-season in former Army kicker Eric Osteen, and Division III kicker Darren Ford out of Hope College. There is also redshirt freshman Zach Murphy, and walk-on Cameron Lischke (East Forsyth).
It reads like either Sciba, Murphy, or Ford will be doing the kicking, and just reading the tea leaves a bit I think Sciba probably has the advantage, but it will be interesting to see how each player holds up as the fall progresses and we get into the regular season. Personally I thought Osteen would have a pretty good shot at the job, although it does seem like he’s in the running for kickoffs.
One thing that the staff has always done well is put the kickers in high-pressure situations at practice. While there is no simulating a game-winning kick, by putting the team around these guys with possible extra sprints after practice if the kicker misses, it certainly adds an incentive to make these practice kicks.
My guess is that there will be some growing pains no matter who takes the starting job into New Orleans at the end of this month. I only hope that these lessons come early in the season and in games that aren’t very close. The good news is that there are a lot of options out there and I have faith that the staff will identify the kicker who has the best leg, as well as the best demeanor for the job.
The kickoff specialist is interesting now too because of the new rule that brings the ball to the 25-yard line if a fair catch is called. From a safety standpoint this should cut down on the amount of injuries experienced on kickoffs, but also provides for a leg up in strategy if the coaching staff can figure it out correctly.
My thought is that the new rule places a premium on hang time and not just booming it out of the end zone every time. There is also a chance to force some mistakes for guys who do try to bring it out and stop them short of the 25-yard line. This brings a bit more mystique to whoever does the kickoffs for the Deacs, of which we hope there will be a lot of.
Overall the kicking game still has a lot of questions to it, and hopefully the staff will be able to pick out the best guy for the job. Individual games, as well as bowl hopes, and/or bowl tiering could depend on it.