HUNTINGTON — The move by Marshall coaches to name a special teams captain each week presents an opportunity to reward the team’s unsung heroes.
This week’s captain is Tony Pittman, who slipped off the running-back radar and is ably performing the grunt work. The week before, it was Chocolate Wilson, whose big plays helped Marshall bury Cincinnati 38-21.
Neither signed up to be a special-teams standout four years ago, and both deserve credit for sticking around and contributing in the “third phase.”
“Everyone wants to play, but there’s only one ball,” Pittman said. “Just being on special teams has given me more availability to help the team win.”
Marshall’s special teams will on display when the Thundering Herd travels to Charlotte to start the Conference USA season.
Kickoff at Jerry Richardson Stadium is 6 p.m. Saturday, with the game airing on WQCW (The “CW”), channel 6 on Suddenlink cable.
Over the years, stat categories have been developed to measure the efficiency of certain special units. Net punting has been a staple, and recently a kickoff category was added. Tallied are the number of touchbacks, punts down inside the 20, out-of-bounds kicks, what have you.
And a few souls try to meld all those stats into one special-teams index. ESPN.com does it, as does Phil Steele as part of his subscription package. Steele prints the previous season’s tabulation, where Marshall finished 86th.
That almost seems kind, considering the 4-of-10 performance on field goals, one kickoff return for a touchdown given up and four kicks blocked.
ESPN.com was kinder, dropping the Herd from No. 1 in 2015 to No. 30. This week, MU sits at fourth out of 128 teams ranked.
The Herd stole one game on special teams, the 31-26 opener against Miami (Ohio). At Cincinnati, the Herd turned two fumbled kicks into next-play touchdowns. Artis Johnson forced and recovered a kickoff return that led to the Herd leading 24-0 at the half.
In the third quarter, Wilson downed one Kaare Vedvik punt at the Cincinnati 2-yard line in the third quarter, then pursued a punt that glanced off a Bearcats’ leg, recovering it at the UC 31. Marshall bumped the lead to 31-7 on the next play.
“In my mind, it was an atomic bomb. Just a flash,” Wilson said. “Saw it hit off the guy’s leg and hear coach [Adam] Fuller yelling, ‘Get to the ball!’ I got to the ball. I give it to the team, and to Vedvik for giving me great hang time. All credit to him.”
Vedvik is having a good season. He is averaging 44.6 yards per punt, including critical boots of 52 and 57 yards with no return late in the Herd’s win over Kent State. He has hit 11 of 17 kickoffs for a touchback and is 4 of 6 on field goals.
One of his misses was a 42-yarder against Cincinnati, blamed on a bad snap. Holder Jackson White did what he could, but Vedvik was unable to hit the ball squarely.
The Herd is third in Conference USA in kickoff coverage (55.1, putting opponents at their 20-yard line on average), first in net net punting (41.5) and second in kickoff returns (23.9). The latter figure is a bit misleading, as teams have kicked away from Keion Davis after his two touchdowns against Miami.
The Bearcats twice tried “sky kicks,” but those amount to an admission of defeat and often give the opponent good field position. Freshman tight end Cody Mitchell caught both of those, returning them 10 and 16 yards. In the latter instance, Marshall started on its 47.
“When you start returning kicks like you do, you have to have an adjustment for your sky kicks and squib kicks and all that,” said MU coach Doc Holliday. “We have Cody Mitchell because he’s a trustworthy guy who makes good decisions. We’ve got Marcel [Williams] at the 10-yard line, so we moved Cody up 5 yards after that first sky kick.
“If he catches that ball, he’ll catch it at the 35-yard line. Marcel can get everything behind him.”
Ryan Yurachek was named the national tight end of the week by the group that administers the John Mackey Award. He had six catches for 77 yards with three touchdowns at Cincinnati.