Special teams wasn’t nearly as special for the Bearcats in 2013 as we have been used to in the past. In fact it was a hot mess. Most of the finger pointing went in the direction of the place kicking unit and rightfully so. On the year, Tony Miliano made just 6/15 field goals. That’s a 40% success rate and good for 124th nationally in that category. Only Temple’s trio of kickers boasted worse numbers on the season. Whether the blame ultimately goes to Miliano himself, the holder, or the long snapper, the entire place kicking aspect of Cincinnati’s team was eye-gougingly awful in 2013.
Then there’s the return game. For the second year in a row Cincinnati didn’t take a kickoff or a touchdown to the house in the regular season (hopefully that turns around in the bowl game). The lack of scoring was reflective of a return game that did a whole lot of nothing all season except allow fans some time to hit the restrooms. The Bearcats ranked 58th in kickoff returns averaging just 21.5 yards per game and 95th in punt returns averaging a little under 6 yards per game. Mardy Gilyard would be sick to his stomach if he saw those numbers.
But one player who was a “Steady Eddie” this year, and “Johnny On The Spot” in one instance, on the special teams unit was punter John Lloyd. When Ray Guy Award candidate Pat O’Donnell abruptly left the program and took his cannon of a leg with him, UC was left with a major question mark at the punter position. It’s not that those of us following this closely didn’t think Lloyd wasn’t a capable replacement, it’s just that we really didn’t know what we had with him. He was an unknown commodity who was thrust into a critical role a year before anyone expected.
But Lloyd did more than simply replace O’Donnell, he actually eclipsed him.
This season, the new full-time Cincinnati punter didn’t get as many opportunities as his predecessor, what with Tommy Tuberville opting for Brendon Kay to pooch punt it whenever UC’s offense stalled in no-man’s land. But Lloyd took advantage when he was called upon, averaging 43.8 yards per punt which is 2 full yards farther than O’Donnell did a year prior. On the season, the UC punter finished second in the AAC in punting average and 23rd nationally among punters with 28 tries or more.
And he did so while rapidly adopting a brand new kicking style. The new coaching staff brought with them a rugby-style methodology to the punter position. Cincinnati fans are used to the traditional method where the punter catches the ball, drops it a couple of feet out in front of him, and swings his leg in a long arcing motion that makes the ball soar into the air, several yards downfield. O’Donnell’s stork-like legs allowed him to create incredible force on the football in this manner.
In the rugby-style method, punters are giving a little more freedom but a boatload more nuances to master. Everything is the same leading up the actual kick; snapper hikes the ball, punter catches the ball, nothing changes. But what happens next is far different from the traditional style. Instead of just dropping the ball and kicking it away, the punter slides to his right (if he’s right-footed) then kicks the ball on specific part to force different outcomes.
One is more akin to the traditional method, a long, high punt that allows the coverage unit the time to get downfield. The other is unique to rugby-style kicking and is more of a line-drive punt, similar to a squib kick off of a tee. This second outcome has been thought of as feast or famine for the kicking team but based on data in recent years seems to yield more feast for them. Not only does the punt, on average, tend to wind up traveling the same distance as the traditional style (after the returner catches the ball and is brought down), but the chances are higher of a muffed return or the ball tumbling end-over-end several more yards downfield, further pinning the opposing offense closer to their endzone.
But mastering it is no cake walk. The entire punting unit must be on the same page, making the right read, and calling out the appropriate play. And thanks to Lloyd’s ability to pick up these nuances quickly, all 11 special teams players were able to make the transition seamlessly in 2013.
I think that’s what is so encouraging about this unit. Despite all of the problems elsewhere on Cincinnati’s special teams, the punting unit performed better this season than in 2012. They were as steady as a large ship in shallow waters with John Lloyd as their anchor. All while adopting a brand new methodology that they were forced to learn in less than a year. That is incredibly impressive to me and bodes well for the Bearcats’ punting team in 2014 when Lloyd is a senior.
(Special thanks to Steve Lloyd for the pictures and the inspiration for this post)