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Special teams emerges as Cardinal specialty

Despite a dominant defense and a thunderous running game, Stanford football’s most successful unit last season might have been its special teams.

(BEN SULITEANU/The Stanford Daily)

Sophomore running back Barry Sanders (above), who returned seven punts last season for a total of 71 yards, has emerged as a leading candidate to return punts in spring practice. (BEN SULITEANU/The Stanford Daily)

Some of the most lasting memories and most important plays from the 2013-14 season came when the kickoff or punt teams lined up on the field. Against Washington, junior Ty Montgomery caught the opening kickoff and raced 99 yards untouched for a touchdown in what would eventually be a 3-point victory for Stanford. Additionally, against Arizona State, senior Blake Lueders and sophomore Luke Kaumatule demolished the Sun Devils’ protection and teamed up to stuff a punt, blocking it back into the end zone for a safety.   As a kick returner, Montgomery led the nation last season with a 30.3 yards-per-kick-return average and two kick return touchdowns, consistently delivering the big play when Stanford needed it.

Not only did the special teams unit impress with big plays, but it also superbly executed the fundamental and severely underappreciated aspects of special teams — kick and punt return coverage. Stanford’s 42.5 net yards per kickoff ranked first in the Pac-12, while its 38.5 net yards per punt ranked fourth, indicating both strong kicking and stellar coverage that prevented opponents from regaining yardage on the returns.

Senior kicker Jordan Williamson also finished fifth in the conference in field goal percentage and senior punter Ben Rhyne finished second in yards per punt. Both specialists will return next season for their fifth years.

“If we play like we did last season, we’ll be good,” said Williamson about the kicking group. “We’ll all be a little more experienced so our performance should be that much better. We’re all looking forward to bringing the unit back together and it’s not like anyone’s moving around or there’s new guys or new pieces.”

After a breakout junior year in 2012 that saw him deliver the game-winning field goal in overtime against Oregon, Williamson battled injuries for much of last season and was limited to kicking field goals after he returned, with sophomore kicker Conrad Ukropina kicking off.

“It was frustrating,” Williamson said. “But ultimately, you get to see things from a different point of view. It’s a humbling experience. You realize that your time on the field isn’t guaranteed and that something can happen, so it really makes you that much more motivated and gives you a little bit more drive to get back and stay healthy and do some preventive things in the future just to be good and continue on with your career.”

Even with the injuries, Williamson still finished 18-for-22 on field goals, including a 4-for-5 performance against Oregon. Now fully healthy and not limited in spring practice, Williamson is continuing to focus on improving for next season.

“Obviously, you want things to be the exact same every single time as a kicker so it’s really just working on consistency and continuing to get where I need to be,” he said.

Although it saw success in nearly every facet of its special teams, Stanford may hope for the most improvement this season in punt returns. The team finished sixth in the Pac-12 with 8.2 yards per punt return last season.

The man who may provide the biggest lift for the Cardinal this season in their punt return game is sophomore running back Barry Sanders. Last season, Sanders finished with 71 yards on seven punt returns, including a team-high 29-yard return. Sanders’ average of 10.1 yards per punt return would have been good for third in the Pac-12 had he finished with a qualifying number of returns.

Throughout spring practice, Sanders has appeared to be the leading candidate to return punts, although he may split time at the position with sophomore Dontonio Jordan and junior Ty Montgomery.

“We’re always looking to get better,” Sanders said. “[The punt return unit] didn’t get a touchdown last year and that’s definitely the goal, to put points on the board as a special teams unit, and that’s what we’ll go into each week trying to do.”

Sanders’ emergence as a leading candidate to return punts next season has come as he also attempts to establish himself as an option in the Cardinal’s running game. Along with juniors Kelsey Young and Remound Wright and senior Ricky Seale, Sanders figures to see time at running back next season after carrying the ball five times for 42 yards last season. Even though he is relatively inexperienced as a running back so far with the Card, Sanders’ time as a punt returner has given him experience on the field that has shown during the spring.

“I think the big thing is the maturity factor,” said Sanders regarding how his special teams skills can carry over to the running game. “Just being back there and having to be relied upon and trusted to do my job. That’s definitely carried over to the offensive side. I think the coaches have liked what they’ve seen so far.”

The Cardinal’s spring practice will culminate this Saturday in the Cardinal and White Spring Game, which starts at 1:00 p.m. at Stanford Stadium and is free for all spectators.

Contact Michael Peterson at mrpeters ‘at’ stanford.edu.

About Michael Peterson

Michael Peterson is the football editor at The Stanford Daily. He has served as a beat reporter for football, baseball and men’s soccer and also does play-by-play broadcasting of baseball and men’s soccer for KZSU. Michael is a sophomore from Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif. majoring in computer science. To contact him, please email him at mrpeters ‘at’ stanford.edu.