Badgers seek special teams improvement against Tech

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By Jeff Potrykus
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Saturday, September 7, 2013

MADISON--Gary Andersen doesn’t pussyfoot around, particularly when he deems it necessary to buttress a unit on his football team that isn’t performing up to standard.

During the staff’s review of Wisconsin’s 45-0 victory over UMass, Andersen identified several areas of UW’s special teams that appeared vulnerable.

Those units were under fire from Tuesday through Thursday as No. 21 UW (1-0) prepared to host Tennessee Tech (1-0) at 11 a.m. today.

The three-day run began with live tackling on kickoff coverage; a punting drill that featured 12 rushers and left backup punter Stephen Salata on his back twice; and a field-goal drill in which the rushers were allowed to line up offside by about a foot.

“That was probably the most intense Tuesday practice I’ve seen, with live special teams,” UW defensive line coach Chad Kauha’aha’a said. “But that is how coach Andersen is. If he sees something that needs to be fixed he will get it fixed.

“He is not worried about what other people think. He just wants to get his team right.”

Andersen acknowledged after practice Thursday that he won’t know until UW faces Tennessee Tech whether the extra work led to improvement.

What the UW players and reporters who cover the team learned this week is that once Andersen identifies a problem he will act decisively to address it.

“Special teams needs to improve,” he said. “If we can’t take care of the special teams and get it to where it needs to be, it will end up costing us games.”

Andersen’s No. 1 concern was the kickoff-coverage unit.

UMass averaged 24 yards on six returns with a long of 28 yards. The Minutemen started their drives after kickoffs, on average, at their 24-yard line.

UW kicker Kyle French recorded two touchbacks and the coverage unit pinned the Minutemen inside their 20 only once.

“I told the kids on our kickoff coverage that numerically we didn’t have a bad day,” said Bill Busch, co-special teams coordinator. “But our big point was that it just wasn’t Big Ten championship football.”

On the second kickoff, French made a touchdown-saving tackle at the UMass 28.

“When you’ve got one kid making a tackle at the 25 or 26 that concerns me,” Andersen said. “That’s one broken tackle away from being a huge play. That will hurt us. That will haunt us.”

French would have been credited with another tackle, this time near the UMass 40, but a holding penalty pushed the Minutemen back to their 20.

The live tackling on kickoff coverage Tuesday got the attention of the players. That included linebacker Derek Landisch, who is out this week because of an ankle injury suffered in the opener.

“I’ve never seen that but I kind of like it,” Landisch said of the in-season tackling on special teams. “I am a special teams guy and that is how I got my experience. Special teams are really important, and we’re just trying to improve every aspect of the team.

“Having your peers watch you work on special teams emphasizes to everybody how important special teams is.”

Andersen thought the blocking on field-goal and extra-point attempts was soft. That resulted in allowing the rushers leeway in lining up offside during practice.

“Our PAT, field-goal protection had some definite leakage in it,” he said. “It’s our fault as coaches. We need to coach it better.”

The punting drill, which featured six rushers on each side of the center going all out without worrying about a roughing call, was a test. During the live drill, at least one player shouted out to rush 15 players. Andersen mercifully kept the number at 12.

“Just trying to make it be the worst-case scenario,” Andersen said. “Make it tough in the moment, so when we get backed up one day and we can react in a positive way when there’s only 11 and they all stay onside. Hopefully, we can get it off in a critical situation.”

UW’s special teams could be tested by Tech.

Sophomore Ladarius Vanlier returned a kickoff 44 yards and had a 93-yard punt return for a touchdown in the Golden Eagles’ 63-7 victory over Cumberland last week.

“We did some good things last week on special teams,” Andersen said. “Don’t get me wrong. We’ve got to get better.”

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