Alabama vs Oklahoma: Getting to know the Sooner’s Special Teams
By Dave Friedman
The Alabama coaching staff is spending their time preparing the Crimson Tide game plan for the Sugar Bowl. While putting in a few new wrinkles, and assessing your own strengths and weaknesses is a part of the process, getting a grasp on your opponent is another sizable task. One interesting dynamic of Oklahoma is a squad that is very good in certain areas of special teams, while other parts can be exploited.
No team kicks more field goals than the Sooners. Mike Hunnicutt leads the nation with 1.9 made field goals a game. He went 23 of 26 this year including 2/4 over 40 yards. His season long was a 44 yarder against West Virginia. During his career he has made 61 field goals in 71 attempts including a 53 yard try as a freshman. Hunnicutt is 41 of 42 on extra points this season and 153 of 157 over his three years. Hunnicutt kicked off for the Sooners in their most recent game, a win over Oklahoma State, but for most of the season Nick Hodgson has had that responsibility.
While Hunnicutt has 16 kickoffs averaging 56.1 yards with two touchbacks, Hodgson has been a standout on kickoffs. He led the NCAA averaging 64.3 yards per kickoff. That resulted in 40 touchbacks. At 65.6-percent, he led the Big XII in touchback percentage. However, in the rare instance that OU had a kick returned, they did not cover them well. The Sooners rank 106th in the nation with opponents returning kicks for an average of 23.7 yards. They gave up one touchdown on a kick return Similarly, the Sooners do not cover punts effectively.
Punter Jed Barnett averaged 41.6 yards a boot, placing 21 of 59 kicks inside the 20 yard line, causing 20 fair catches, and nine times hit it well enough to go 50 yards or more. That being said, he was last in the conference with 35.2 net yards a kick, and that is because OU struggled in coverage. Only five teams in the nation allowed more than the 16.3 yards per return that the Sooners gave up. Oklahoma allowed one punt return for a touchdown.
While covering kicks and punts is not OU’s strength, they are adapt at returning them. It wouldn’t be shocking to see Jalen Saunders back deep on both type of kicks during the Sugar Bowl. As a punt returner this year he averaged just under 17 yards a return, seventh in the NCAA, and scored twice. As a team, the Sooners were fourth in college football topping 15 yards a punt return. Saunders returned only one kickoff this year, and took it back 55 yards against Baylor. Roy Finch averaged 27.5 yards a kick return on 14 tries this year including a 73 yarder. Trey Franks mustered 23.6 yards a return on five opportunities.
The Sooners had three kicks and two punts blocked during the regular season. They swatted three kicks of their own and blocked one punt. As a whole, Oklahoma’s special teams can win or a lose a game. If it is going to be the difference in a positive way, that probably means a big play from Saunders or a clutch kick by Hunnicutt. If the special teams are a factor because of their coverage, it is likely to be bad news for Bob Stoops’ squad.