HUNTINGTON - Here is the harshest reality of Marshall football these days: Its special teams are such that they can't overlook anybody, anytime, anywhere.With the notable exception of freshman punter Tyler Williams' lively leg, the Thundering Herd kicking units likely will be an underdog against the rest of the schedule. That won't change with the upcoming game against Alabama-Birmingham at 4:30 p.m. EST Saturday at Legion Field.At 2-7 (1-4 Conference USA), the Blazers have struggled in their 17th season of Division I-A/FBS football, but have enjoyed several special-teams highlights, such as:Ty Long's place-kicking. The sophomore now owns the school record for longest field goal after belting a 54-yarder Sept. 22 against Ohio State. He saw a streak of 12 made field goals snapped when he missed a 47-yarder in that game, but don't weep for him: He is 11 of 13 this year, 27 of 32 over two seasons, and has hit all 18 attempts from 40 yards or closer.
He hit two game-winning field goals in 2011, against Central Florida and Southern Mississippi.The memory of Marshall's last game-winning field goal has faded into black - was it Willy Merrick's national championship kick of 1992, or does it just seem that way?Whatever the case, Justin Haig is about as consistent as Long, but doesn't have the leg. He is 8 of 11 and has hit all three attempts from 40 yards or closer, but the long is just 44 - and that's a big reason why the Herd (4-5, 3-2) went for it on fourth-and-6 from the Memphis 31-yard line last weekend. (That worked out OK, with Rakeem Cato's 31-yard touchdown pass to Davonte Allen.)
UAB sophomore punter Hunter Mullins will match Williams yard for yard, it seems. Mullins is 10th in the country in yardage with 45.1 per kick, and he is averaging more than 50 yards on 16 attempts over the last four games.
Unlike Williams, Mullins has the 3.6 punts per game needed to qualify for the NCAA rankings. It must be noted, however, that with UAB's productive offense, Mullins won't punt nearly as much as, say, Memphis' Tom Hornsey.UAB has recovered three onside kicks, coming against Troy, Ohio State and Tulane. The Herd was caught flat-footed on a surprise Memphis attempt last week, allowing Paulo Henriques to cover his own kick.Like Marshall, the Blazers like to get after the punter. They blocked a punt against Ohio State and Nick Adams returned it for a touchdown, the first time UAB did that since 2003. They also blocked a punt against Tulsa.
On the other hand, Mullins has had one rejected, no doubt drawing the attention of Herd punt-rushers.Marshall coach Doc Holliday took note of the plays against Ohio State, knowing his former boss Urban Meyer is running the show in Columbus."I've been with Urban a long time, and I don't think he's ever had a punt blocked and an onside kick against him in the same game," Holliday said.Brace yourselves, Herd fans. It's time to discuss kickoff returns.
Opponents have allowed UAB to return only 24 of 61 kickoffs, with Jackie Williams and Adams averaging nearly 23 yards per return.The Blazers sit in the middle of the NCAA pack, but that could rise - especially if they receive the second-half kickoff, as MU's previous nine foes have done. Including that touchdown scored by Central Florida's Quincy McDuffie, the average starting position for Herd opponents has been the 381/2-yard line.Earlier this week, Holliday acknowledged the problem of selecting the right personnel for special teams. The pool of speed and talent has dropped, as players with injuries sit out and those with lesser aches are saved for their position duties. One absence that still hurts: Evan McKelvey's anterior cruciate ligament tear back in September, suffered on a kickoff."You start getting some guys banged up and that's where it gets you," Holliday said. "You have guys that have not played special teams, and you have three corners that are usually on special teams but aren't on there because they're not practicing. That's where it shows up and we have to get better players in that area, too."A major example: Kevin Grooms made two tackles against Memphis, one saving a touchdown on the 52-yard return to start the second half. Fellow running back Steward Butler had a tackle."When you have guys go down, you have to get athletes in there. You're going to see Stew and you're going to see Grooms," Holliday said. "Schematically, it's not an issue."
Contact Doug Smock at 304-348-5130 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.