Getting their kicks: Poor performances push Taggart to consider outside help on special teams

Redshirt freshman Monte Merrick practices placekicking while Kevin Carillo, a true freshman kicker, gazes on. The two have split kicking reps in Western’s fall camp since starting kicker Casey Tinius has been sidelined with a groin injury.

Zach Greenwell

This story was originally published Aug. 24, 2010.

It takes an unusual situation for Head Coach Willie Taggart to legitimately ponder giving outsiders on campus a shot at a position on Western’s football team.

But the Toppers’ recent production in the kicking game has Taggart nearly to that point.

“We’re seriously thinking about holding a tryout and getting someone to kick the ball for us, because we need a kicker,” Taggart said Tuesday. “We’re going to find a kicker. It’s open competition for everyone — including (outsiders) too — so all you’ve got to do is kick it through the yellow things. We’re not asking too much. That’s all they have to do.”

Taggart’s frustration with the special teams unit has slowly mounted, as starting kicker Casey Tinius has been sidelined with a strained groin.

Although Taggart said Tinius might be back in action by the end of the week, the junior’s missed about two weeks of practice, and Taggart said his reserves haven’t picked up the slack.

“You hope for one of those other guys to step up, and they haven’t stepped up to where coach Taggart’s comfortable,” he said.

Freshmen Monte Merrick and Kevin Carrillo have handled the majority of the kicking duties while Tinius has been out.

Special teams coach Karl Maslowski said the unit will benefit greatly from Tinius’ return, although he’s seen some growth in the meantime.

“We’re actually making some pretty good progress,” Maslowski said. “It’s not where we want to be, but for the most part, we’ve got two kickers. Casey’s a little banged up right now, but once he gets back, we’ll be back on the path that we want. He’s working hard to come back now.

“Monte’s coming along a lot better. A couple weeks ago, he was missing everything. Now, he’s making his extra points and doing the things we want, so we’re getting pleased. I’m not saying we are pleased yet, but we’re getting there.”

Tinius made 14-of-19 field goals last year for Western, good for the team lead in scoring and the sixth-highest number of fields goals made in a season in program history.

Although he’s missed so much practice time, Taggart said he doesn’t think Tinius will have any problem sliding right back into a groove before the Toppers play Sept. 4 at Nebraska.

Tinius is also listed as the No. 2 punter on Western’s first fall depth chart, but Taggart said that he will work exclusively on field goals this season.

“I want Casey to kick,” Taggart said. “I want him to be the best kicker in the country and make all his field goals. We’ve got him focused on one job, and then hopefully these other guys will step up and be able to kick off for us and punt. That’ll be the plan.”

The rest of that plan hasn’t gone too smoothly so far.

Maslowski called Western’s punting game “shaky,” a far cry from the stellar year graduated punter Jeremy Moore had last season.

Moore booted 56 punts for an average of 43.3 yards in 2009, placing nine of them inside the opponent’s 20-yard line.

While Maslowski acknowledged that Moore was an elite punter, he said that Western’s top option this season, redshirt freshman Hendrix Brakefield, has all the potential in the world — when he can show it.

“Brakefield’s good,” Maslowski said. “He’s a good punter when he gets ahold of it and when he’s consistent. Brakefield can hit the ball 65, 70 yards when he gets ahold of it. He’s a big kid and he can boom the ball. We’ve just got to get him to do it every single time, and he’ll get there.

“He’s still a young kid, and we can’t give up on him yet.”

With Brakefield and Carrillo, a true freshman from Louisville Butler High School, struggling with consistency, Maslowski said the coaching staff has been trying to instill some safeguards until the punters work out the kinks.

“We’ve got some ideas to try to make it better for us,” he said. “Not to trick anybody, but we’re trying to make it so those guys are always protected and they always get the punt off, and that they’re not going to get it returned back on them. That’s the biggest thing now, is coming up with schemes to deal with the inconsistency. We know we have it, so we’ve got to deal with it.”

In terms of the return game, Western has its top three kickoff and punt returners listed collectively on the first depth chart as freshman receiver Willie McNeal, junior cornerback Derrius Brooks and junior running back Bobby Rainey.

McNeal and Brooks are arguably two of the Toppers’ fastest players, and Rainey provides a whole different level of vision and quickness, Maslowski said.

Rainey set school records in 2009 with 2,101 all-purpose yards and 1,050 net kick return yards.

Maslowski said the biggest question mark about Rainey is whether or not the special teams unit will be allowed to use him. Rainey is currently being held out of practices with a sore shoulder and is not to be tackled when he does get on the field, so it remains to be seen whether Taggart will risk using him as a returner, he said.

“I don’t know how much we’re going to be able to use Rainey yet — as much as (Taggart) lets us,” Maslowski said, laughing. “We’re going to try to use him because the kid sees the field better than anybody else, and that’s going to be huge for us.”

Maslowski said he’s been pleased with the way certain guys, like senior receiver Quinterrance Cooper, have taken to blocking for the team’s playmakers.

Cooper said he knows what those players are capable of, and he’s just trying to make the gap for them to run through as wide as possible.

“The returners do what they’ve got to do anyways,” Cooper said. “Once they get the ball in their hands, they can do amazing things. For me, I just want to get in front of the guy I’ve got to block so they can … take it to the house.”