Special teams unit demonstrates major improvement

After the 2008 season, Head Coach Paul Johnson had few positive things to say about the Jackets’ special teams unit. Johnson highlighted special teams as an area in which the team would need to improve dramatically after the team struggled in nearly every aspect last season.

Over the team’s first two games, and particularly in last Thursday’s home victory over Clemson, the Jackets have showed numerous signs of progress throughout the unit. The team has put a great deal of effort into improving their performance on special teams throughout the offseason.

“Every day before practice, we go through special teams, and we watch film on special teams and have meetings. They’ve put more focus on it so we can put more energy into it,” redshirt sophomore cornerback and punt returner Jerrard Tarrant said.

Punt returns were an especially troubling area for the Jackets in 2008, as the three Tech players who went back to field punts last season–then-sophomore receiver Tyler Melton, then-freshman A-back Roddy Jones, and then-senior receiver Andrew Smith–combined for an average of just 6.7 yards per return and frequently struggled with fumbles.

The Jackets’ punt return unit received a boost in the offseason with the return of Tarrant, who was slated to be the starting punt returner for the Jackets last season before he received a season-long suspension.

Upon returning, Tarrant won a competition with several others for the job this summer, and the move paid off immediately. When Tarrant returned a second-quarter punt for a touchdown, it marked the first time Tech had scored on a punt return since Jonathan Smith took one back in 2003.

Tarrant confirmed the reports that he had guaranteed he would return a punt for a touchdown in his first game. “I thought about it the whole time in camp…Since it’s been so long, I’ve been talking about it since I came here about returning a punt in my first game,” Tarrant said.

The speedy cornerback had an even better performance in store against Clemson. When the Tigers lined up for what would have been a 55-yard field goal attempt in the first quarter, Clemson kicker Richard Jackson took a direct snap and made a pooch punt. Tarrant, playing deep near the end zone, caught the short punt at the Jackets’ 15-yard line with three Clemson defenders immediately in front of him. He evaded all three and ran down the sideline for an 85-yard touchdown to give the Jackets an early 14-0 lead.

Tarrant also had a strong game at cornerback; most notably, he deflected a deep pass to Clemson running back C.J. Spiller on the Tigers’ final drive of the game to prevent Clemson from reaching field goal range.

“It just feels good to be able to help my team in big ways like that,” Tarrant said.

Another prominent member of the unit, junior kicker Scott Blair, accounted for 18 of Tech’s 30 points in the Clemson game. Nine came by way of field goals, but Blair also connected on his first career touchdown pass late in the first quarter.

On fourth-and-13, Johnson called a trick play. He called back the offense and sent the field goal unit onto the field with little time on the play clock. In the confusion, no Clemson defenders noticed that Tech junior receiver Demaryius Thomas was on the field near the sideline.

Rather than attempting a 51-yard field goal, Blair took a direct snap and threw to a wide-open Thomas, who broke away from one defender en route to a 34-yard touchdown.

The junior contributed with his leg as well. He had a second-quarter field goal to increase Tech’s lead to 24-0, and in the final period, he kicked the game-tying and game-winning field goals in the final six minutes.

Blair’s huge game quietly masked the fact that his three field goals came from 24, 34 and 36 yards out. As the primary placekicker last season, the junior was reliable on relatively short field goals but was unable to maintain that level of accuracy on long-distance field goal attempts. Blair’s splits were indicative of the disparity: he was successful on 12 of 13 attempts from fewer than 40 yards away, but he missed all six attempts from beyond 40 yards.

Still, Blair is confident that his success rate will improve with time. “I always wanted to kick a game winner…I have never been in that situation before and there is not going to be a much bigger situation than that,” Blair said.

“Scott always kicks well in practice, and he made it when we needed him to tonight. I think that is really going to help him with his confidence,” Johnson said.

Blair should also benefit from the fact that redshirt sophomore Chandler Anderson has taken over the punting duties for the Jackets, allowing Blair to concentrate on placekicking and kickoffs.

Anderson has had good and bad moments in the first two games, but against Clemson he was generally solid throughout. He made six punts for an average of 36.7 yards per punt, and Tech’s coverage unit allowed the Tigers to make only one punt return in the game.