Oklahoma football: Special teams has not been a Sooner specialty lately

Sep 10, 2022; Norman, Oklahoma, USA; Oklahoma Sooners place kicker Zach Schmit (34) celebrates with punter Michael Turk (37) during the game against the Kent State Golden Flashes at Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 10, 2022; Norman, Oklahoma, USA; Oklahoma Sooners place kicker Zach Schmit (34) celebrates with punter Michael Turk (37) during the game against the Kent State Golden Flashes at Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports /

Special teams have been anything but for the Oklahoma football program in recent seasons.

While most of the Oklahoma concerns the past few years have been focused on defensive breakdowns, the Sooners have been no better than average on special teams and could easily have used some help in that facet of the game.

For the past two seasons, the annual Phil Steele College Football Preview publication, considered one of the most authoritative sources in college football has given Oklahoma a preseason position group ranking of No. 7 in the Big 12 on special teams. That’s 7 out of 10 in 2022 and 7 out of 14 in 2023.

Four of the Sooners’ seven losses last season were by just three points. It stands to reason that better production on special teams might have converted one or more of those four close losses into Oklahoma wins.

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Sophomore kicker Zach Schmidt was just 12 of 18 in field goal attempts his freshman season with a long of 46 yards. Schmidt also kicks off for the Sooners. A year ago, he reached the end zone for touchbacks on 58 of his 79 kickoffs, am efficiency rate of 74 percent. He will need to improve on that rate going forward. Unfortunately, Schmidt’s up-and-down 2022 season mirrored that of the team as a whole.

On those kickoffs that were returned by opponents, the Oklahoma special teams unit on kickoffs failed to help the cause. The Sooners ranked 123rd in the nation out of 131 FBS teams in kickoff return defense, allowing nearly 25 yards per return.

Schmidt also was involved in a couple of field-goal fakes last season, showing head coach Brent Venables’ willingness to be aggressive when need be. One of the fakes resulted in a touchdown against Iowa State; the other against Texas Tech didn’t work out that well.

OU had the Big 12’s best punter last season. Michael Turk averaged 46.8 yards per punt, third best in the entire country. Unfortunately, Turk’s eligibility ended last season. Luke Elzinga, a transfer from Central Michigan, is likely to move into that role in 2023, although he will have some competition from Josh Plaster, himself a transfer from Arizona State in 2021.

When Turk wasn’t flipping the field and pinning OU’s opponents deep in their own territory, the Sooners were excellent in punt return coverage, allowing just 2.83 yards per return,10th best in the country. Jay Nunez has primary responsibility for special teams, but he is an analyst on Venables’ staff. In that regard, the individual coaching that is required is divided among Venables’ coaching assistants. Overall, Nunez is hoping the Sooners can be just as effective defending punts in the coming season.

For the first time in four seasons, Oklahoma must replace its long snapper. As most every football fan knows, there are several critical components to the field goal and punt game, and it all starts with a good long snapper. Kasey Kelleher is gone after four years as the starter.

Ben Anderson redshirted last season as a freshman at the long-snapper position and is primed to move into the starting role this season. “He looks like an old soul, and you’d think he’s like a fifth-year starter just how he operates and how he handles himself, Nunez recently told John Hoover, who covers Oklahoma for Fan Nation, part of the Sports Illustrated network. So that transition should be a relatively easy one.

When Oklahoma is on the receiving end of punts, the Sooners will have big shoes to fill in replacing Marvin Mims, who is off to the NFL. Mims. OU averaged 14.08 yards per punt return in 2022, good for 12th best in the country.

Jalil Farooq handled much of the kickoff return duties for OU last season and averaged 22.9 yards per return. That was only 70th best in the nation. Farooq will probably be the primary return man on kickoffs again this season, although the Sooners have a host of speedy options they could use on kickoff and punts in the 2023 season. Prospects could include WR LV Bunkley-Shelton, DB Billy Bowman (although Bowman was injured returning kickoffs early last season and his absence was missed on defense while he was out), S Peyton Bowen, RBs Gavin Sawchuk and Dylan Smothers and DB Gentry Williams.

The bottom line is that Venables and the Sooners need higher productivity out of special teams in the 2023 more complementary football than has been the case in recent seasons. Oklahoma actually showed improvement in special teams contributions in 2022 over 2021, but they need to get a whole lot better if OU is going to realistically contend for a Big 12 championship this season and successfully compete with the best teams in the SEC in future years.

The 2023 season will be a critical one for the Sooners with the impending move to the SEC, the country’s strongest football conference. Special teams can either be part of the solution or continue to be part of the problem. Sooner fans are counting on the latter.