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Returns pay off for UA Repetition key to success for special teams

Citizen Staff Writer

Arizona assistant football coach Jeff Hammerschmidt wakes up his laptop, clicks the mouse a few times and grabs the laser pointer.

He’s ready to explain how Mike Thomas scored on a 48-yard punt return against Washington last week.

The entirety of the play – from snap to touchdown – took 18 seconds.

But the story doesn’t start with Washington in punt formation from its 5-yard-line with 8:31 left in the second quarter.

It doesn’t start with game-week preparation. It doesn’t start with Hammerschmidt’s hiring as special teams coordinator last spring.

Much of coaching is the accumulation of passed-along knowledge, so who knows where these particular X’s and O’s had their origins, but for Hammerschmidt it started when he was at San Jose State last season.

“A coach from Menlo College, Fred Guidici, came in and said, ‘This is all we do, we run the wall,’ ” Hammerschmidt said. “That is what we did at San Jose State. It was very effective.”

The wall. That’s what Arizona does. A Lazer return sets up a wall of blockers to the left. A Rocket return sets the wall to the right.

“I’m sure everybody draws up that return. There’s no magic,” Hammerschmidt said.

“It is nothing but being the same. Over time, the guys know where to go. You just try to make it simple. I’ve learned during my time on special teams, if you change a little stupid thing, it just messes them up.

“You think it’s easy, but it’s not.”

• • •

The first thing is to identify players who fit the profile. Many of UA’s special teams aces in the past couple of decades have been players who – with all due affection – were a little crazy between the ear holes when they stepped onto the field.

Heath Bray. Donnie Salum. Paul Kasprzyk.

“You have to be a little bit reckless,” Hammerschmidt said. “You don’t have to be an over-thinker.”

Arizona is developing a couple of those kind of players, including sophomore defensive back Trevor “Tito” Foster, whose role is to set the first block of the wall.

“On special teams you can’t have fear. You just go out there and give it all you have,” Foster said.

“There are times when I have to go against guys who weigh 300-and-something pounds. I weigh a buck-ninety-one. It takes pure heart.”

Most of the personnel in the return game come from offense. The punt return team features five backup receivers – Derick Barkum, David Douglas, Joe Reese, David Roberts and Juron Criner.

“You see the importance of having depth in athletes behind our starters,” said head coach Mike Stoops. “That really helps.”

It helps to make it fun, too. Hammerschmidt gives away Crunch Bars for significant blocks, hits or tackles. He hands out PayDay bars for big plays.

He said that’s something he picked up from former UA head coach Jim Young, who was an assistant at Arizona from 1992-94 during Hammerschmidt’s first coaching stint at Arizona.

Seems to work as a motivational tool.

“It reminds them about things,” Hammerschmidt said. “Plus, the guys like them.”

• • •

Most of Arizona’s big returns this season have been on the Lazer return.

Thomas nearly had a touchdown off that against Idaho, but officials ruled he stepped out of bounds along the way.

“He didn’t step out,” countered Hammerschmidt.

Also in that game, Thomas fumbled a punt catch, but Marquis Hundley was there to pick up the ball. It’s no accident Hundley scored. Knowing the wall of blockers was to the left, he made a coverage man miss, then cut behind the wall for an 87-yard score.

Arizona’s scouting indicated a Rocket return would be best against Washington because the Huskies linemen to that side of the field were bigger and slower. Easier to block.

Arizona’s first return attempt was thwarted because the wind held up the punt. Thomas had to let it bounce.

On the Huskies’ second punt, Hammerschmidt called for pressure to come off the corners. The Arizona players who are supposed to block the gunners – the players split wide on the team punting the ball – came in close to the line and rushed the punter.

“We’re trying to get the punter uncomfortable,” Hammerschmidt said.

“Not so much to block it; our main thing is to return it. I think you always kind of have to make a decision – are you a block team or a return team? I think with Mike, we’re a return team.”

That little blitz might not sound like much. But one coaching decision is connected to another. Certain moves set up certain moves.

When the Huskies punted next, they responded to the previous rush by bringing their gunners in close to the line for better protection.

That forced Chris Stevens – UW’s most dangerous gunner – to chip block on a Wildcat before he released downfield. That half-second or so likely was critical.

This was a Lazer return because of where the Huskies were between the hash marks. As Thomas caught the ball on the right side of the field, Stevens still had the first shot to make the tackle, but Trevin Wade made the block and Thomas had a step.

“When Mike catches it right there, I know we have a pretty good chance,” Hammerschmidt said.

In that moment, frozen on the coaches’ game tape – which is shot from high atop Arizona Stadium – you can see the wall has formed.

Four players have peeled back to the left. They are supposed to sprint to the numbers, run up the field and then come back to Thomas. In a perfect scenario, they are staggered five yards up and five yards over from Thomas, like pieces set up diagonally on a checker board.

Thomas followed the script and took off to the left, retreating about nine yards to avoid a would-be tackler.

As he turned up field, the wall was doing its job. Orlando Vargas picked off Stevens, who had raced across the field. Joe Perkins shielded tight end Michael Gottlieb and two other Huskies.

Barkum blocked multiple guys closer to the goal line, including Quinton Richardson. He was the guy on the ground who Thomas hopped over to get into the end zone.

“You always see at least one questionable block,” Hammerschmidt said of punt returns. “This last one was clean as can be.”

Just like he drew it up.

• • •

Arizona ranks eighth nationally in punt returns, averaging 19.95 yards per attempt, with two touchdowns.

What the Wildcats do isn’t complicated, but Hammerschmidt is confident Arizona is adept at returning left and right, into the boundary or to the wide side of the field, making it dicey for opponents to load up one way or another.

Whatever way, he figures this will be a difficult week for punt returns. One of Stanford’s gunners is Wopamo Osaisai, one of the fastest athletes in the Pac-10.

Hammerschmidt knows. He coached at Stanford in 2006.

“He can’t even be double-teamed,” Hammerschmidt said. “When I was there and we were playing Cal, he beat double teams and stopped DeSean Jackson cold. So, who knows if we’ll have anything this week.”

It’s best to stay humble.

“I’m sure right now someone is writing up a fake against us,” Hammerschmidt said.

It’s that kind of thing that keeps him up at night. Opposing coaches are sleepless because of Thomas.

“Mike has a little bit of magic in him,” Hammerschmidt said. “The guys just stay on their blocks because they know he is going to make something happen. He gets the whole thing going.”

Anthony Gimino’s e-mail:


Hard work by Wildcats pays of on returns




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