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Position Group Focus: Special Teams

Could there be improvement from a weak place kicking and punt return game from a year ago?


A low spot among many in 2013 was the UTEP special teams unit, more so on the place kicking and punt returns area.

Jay Mattox showed he was a freshman kicker, struggling and going only 7/15 on the year, including a 2 out of 5 mark from the 20-29 yard range.

Mattox had longs of 45, and 34 at home against Tulsa, then booted a 41 yarder on the road at Middle Tennessee.

He showed some improvement down the stretch of the season, but his kicks were way too low angled in some situations, and in comparison to UTEP's opponents who only missed two field goals in 2013, improvement in getting easy points in the red-zone is a must if UTEP wants a shot at being a competitive team.

Mattox will be the main place kicker, though red-shirt freshman kicker Mikael Sroka is listed as his backup.

Mike Ruggles at times last year looked like a legit all-conference punter, he averaged 40 yards a boot, with a long of 73 in the Sun Bowl.

Ruggles earned himself a scholarship over the off-season, though Kugler hinted that both Ruggles, and Sroka could platoon situationally at punter.

Kugler on Special Teams:

"I think we'll be drastically improved in the kicking game for a lot of reasons. Number one, Brian Natkin and and Robert Rodriguez running the special teams area have done an outstanding job. The players have been really focused and are playing with energy. I think we have better personnel as far as linebacker, tight end, fullback type bodies where we have bigger players out there. We're not just out there with DBs and receivers where we have small special teams and can't be physical. I think our kickers have drastically improved. Maddox has been extremely consistent during camp. I used to have to look through my fingers last year every time they kicked the ball. The punters have both dramatically improved during camp. Both Ruggles and Sroka will have opportunities to punt. I like our return game. I think Autrey Golden, much like Wiggins for them, is one of the better kickoff returners in the country and certainly our conference. And I really feel like we have better personnel in punt returns. Damian Payne who came from Houston as a transfer has returned punts and kickoffs for them and has been very successful at a good level of football. He brings some experience and Nick Gathrite and Jarrad Shaw will be his backups and get opportunities as a punt returner. I think we've improved personnel wise and schematic wise. I love where we're headed and I think we'll probably take a few more risks this year on special teams. That's an area of improvement on the team that I think will be dramatic."

From what I saw in camp the place kicking game has improved from just overall growth of the hard work they put in, but I still have my doubts about their consistency sitting days away from the first game.

An area where UTEP is greatly improved is in punt returns.

Damian Payne takes over punt return duties after he was ranked third in the American Conference last season in punt return average for Houston.

Payne is just an all-around athlete who saw time at receiver, defensive back, and returner during his time at Houston, he was recruited by former head coach, and current Texas A&M head man Kevin Sumlin.

Behind him UTEP added some speed and athleticism in corner back Nick Gathrite, and Aaron Jones could also be back there in must need a huge return situations. As sure handed as Jim Jones was last year, he was not a true home threat back there.

Payne should also be a deep back on kick off returns along with Autrey Golden who again will be a huge impact factor on special teams.

Kugler noted he moved more linebacker/fullback types on special teams coverage as adjustments from a year ago.  He also said the improvement of the special teams started with coaches and UTEP legends Brain Natkin and Robert Rodriguez who have been working with the special teams through the spring and fall.

He would also go on to say that with the improvement of the special teams we could see more risks taken to give UTEP an extra boost.  Hopefully we also see more depth, I wouldn't want to see Aaron Jones making twelve tackles again as a gunner on punt coverage.

If the Miners can improve from their poor special teams output from a year ago, things could go UTEP's way in terms of win turnaround, though the importance of special teams executions will be key in 2014