Hogs’ special teams trending upward
BY DUDLEY E. DAWSON
One of the improved facets of Arkansas’ football team since head coach Sam Pittman arrived three years ago has been its special teams.
Razorback special teams coordinator Scott Fountain, who Pittman brought with him from Georgia as the program’s first-ever coach to assume that post, expects contined ascension from his troops in 2022.
That’s both from offensive and defensive aspects, winning the battle against its foes in terms of what is sometimes called hidden yardage.
“I think we can be better for sure,” Fountain said. “… It’s so important to me for us to be a good punt-return team. As a kickoff return team, I think it’s so important to be smart in your decisions. You know, when to bring it out, when not to bring it out, when to fair catch it, etcetera. I want us to just continue to thrive and bet the best we can.”
The return of freshman All-American field goal kicker Cam Little and punter/holder Reid Bauer are a couple of big reasons for Fountain’s confidence.
“I think we can attribute a lot of that success to Coach Fountain,” Bauer said. “ The way he has us work at practice and during the offseason, he really keeps us accountable. It’s been really good for our unit, I mean I’ve been here, this is gonna be my fifth season, and I’ve just seen the specialist room continue to grow every single year, and it’s been really fun to be a part of.”
Little echoed those same sentiments.
“Kind of piggybacking on that, I feel like Coach Fountain really does hold us to a high standard,” Little said. “I feel like, from talking to some NFL guys about the standards that they’re held to, I think Coach Fountain kind of instills those same type of standards.
“So, I definitely feel like that contributes a lot to our success. Just the pressure we have in practice, the high expectations we have in practice. If it’s not perfect then it’s not good enough really. That’s a good rule to live by in the specialist world really, if it’s not perfect, it’s not good enough.
Little was 20 of 24 last season and also 46 of 46 on extra points.
“We’re just always talking about consistency,” Fountain said. “For Cam, he started out last year 8-for-8. He kind of hit a little bit of a lull, and then he finished up really strong. I always just really preach to him about being really consistent in what he does. The good thing is this is the first time we’ve had the holder and the field goal kicker back. That’s a big deal.”
Little has set goals he would like to achieve this season.
“Obviously you want to build on what you did last year and in years past,” Little said. “ I think I was 83 percent last year, 20 of 24, and two of those misses came from 50-plus. I think one (miss) was a 38-yarder and one was a 41-yarder.
“I think those long kicks, 50-plus, instead of being 33 percent on those I want to be above 50 percent. That’s what we try and aim for.
“Obviously it’s nice to make all of them, but I really do think that’s where I’m trying to improve, is on longer field goals. Just being able to put those through.”
Little is confident that is something that he will be able to get accomplished.
“I definitely feel like I’ve gotten a stronger leg this offseason,” Little said. “I had a 52 in the scrimmage this past weekend and I cleared it by a good amount. I definitely feel like my leg is getting stronger. I’d say I’d probably about three more yards comfortable going a little further than last year.”
Little said he feels good about his range from the mid-50s.
“In warmup, sometimes the wind goes into you, sometimes it’s with you,” Little said. “I kind of make that a game time decision on what I feel like is doable during the game. But I think if there was no wind going both ways, I feel like I’m good from about 56 in. Going both ways I’d get it to the uprights.”
Little and Texas State transfer Jake Bates, a former UCA soccer player, are vying for the kickoff job after Vito Calvaruso transferred to Wisconsin.
“The good thing for Cam, like anybody, Cam is our field goal kicker, but he’d love to be the kickoff guy,” Fountain said. “ So he’s competing his tail off and he’s certainly better than he was a year ago. He did kick in the (Outback) bowl game for us.
“And then Bates is kind of a guy that was a soccer player turned football that’s he’s always been a kickoff guy. So that’s kind of why we brought him here to see how he would do. But he’s done very well. This scrimmage this Saturday will be really big for me to see how they kind of finish up camp.”
Bauer is being pushed for the punting job by freshman Max Fletcher, but is solidified as Little’s holder after winning the Peter Mortell award as college football’s top holder last season.
Bauer averaged 43.3 yards per punt last season while Fletcher comes to Arkansas from Australia Pro Kick.
“For us, we look at a lot of factors,” Fountain said of the punters. “We look at hang-time and distance, which we call matchers. We put those two together. We also look at field zones, putting the ball where we like to put the ball at on the field.
“Probably one of the things that is overlooked that is important is the catch-to-kick operation. Catching the ball and getting it off in time so we don’t have any blocked punts.”
Bauer has fended off challengers since he first arrived.
“He’s had a great camp,” Fountain said. “Fletcher has had a great camp. It’s going to be interesting. It’s going to come down to the wire with those two I think, but I’ve been very, very pleased with both of them. We are much better there than we have been in the past.”
Bauer is not upset that Arkansas keeps bringing in challengers.
“My thought process is iron sharpens iron,” Bauer said. “ We’re a really good university, and we’re bringing in really good talent every year. It’s nice to always being competing. It keeps you on your toes and elevates your game to a status that you didn’t think you could do.
“I don’t really look at it and get frustrated. I just view every chance as an opportunity, every competition as an opportunity.”
The fact that Bauer, who threw a 32-yard pass and ran for 23 yards on fake punts last season, is solidified as the holder works in his favor in the punting race.
“That certainly could play into it,” Fountain said. “We typically will travel five or six specialists. We try to carry two kickers, two punters, two long snappers. Or you can take one off if a guy is a combo guy. Like Sam Loy was capable of kicking off last year, but then also he could punt. So that certainly helps us, that brings value there. 100 percent the holder is going to travel, right? That’s really important.”
Deep snapper Jordan Silver is gone so that job has been thrown open to Eli Stein, John Oehrlein and Fransisco Castro.
“Once we determine that spot and who it is I’ll feel good about it,” Fountain said. “I think we have three good choices. I’ve been in places where you have one guy and the other two are just guys. We have three really good snappers here.
“Any time you lose a guy like Jordan Silver, a very consistent guy, you just have to start over and get somebody ready. After the first game, you’ll feel better about it or worse about it. That’s for sure. But I think we’re headed in the right direction.”
Arkansas was abysmal in punt returns in 2020 with just four non-fair catches while gaining just 18 yards for a 4.5 average while its foes returned 23 for 263 yards (24.6).
That improved to 24 returns for 264 yards in 2021 (11.0), outdistancing their opponents, who had 19 returns for 149 yards (7.8).
Fountain notes that his top four returners at this point are all wide receivers in Bryce Stephens, Isaiah Sategna, Harper Cole and Jadon Haselwood.
Stephens had 3 returns for 53 yards last season with a long of 27 at LSU.
“Bryce had a little bit of a lead going into camp because he did do that in the LSU game and I think the UAPB game last year and had two big returns,” Fountain said. “But, the other guys are doing really well, and it’s a tight competition.”
Arkansas kickoff returns went from 9 for 157 yards (17.4) in 2020 to 16 for 310 (24.6) in 2021.
Sophomore tailback AJ Green ( 8 returns for 147 yards) is joined by wide receivers Sategna, Matt Landers and freshman running back Rashod Dubinion as the top possibilities to be back deep this season.
“At kick return, that’s an area I think we can be better at this year,” Fountain said. “We have AJ back, who kind of did some good things for us late in the year. Isaiah Sategna is back there as well. Matt Landers is working back there a little bit, and Rashod Dubinion, which we call Dub, he’s back there and has done a great job as well.
“So, we’ll kind of show those guys here the next week and then try to make a decision.”
The Razorbacks cut down their opponents kick return average from 24.6 yards to 21.1 over the last two seasons.
It’s an area that Fountain thinks can continue to improve with better athletes on campus now.
“We have I think a little more speed than we’ve had in the past, which helps,” Fountain said. “My first year here, we were really just moving guys around a lot. Last year, TJ Hammonds was a guy on punt that was just a tremendous X-factor for us getting down the field.
“This year, I think we have a few more choices there that I’m excited about. We brought in a couple of fast freshmen, got some good transfers in. So, I think our overall team speed is better than it’s been.”
Fountain has his eyes on four gunners on punt coverage.
“Right now, we have about four guys,” Fountain said. “(LaDarrius) Day Day Bishop’s back. He was hurt this spring. Day Day did that for us a little bit a couple years ago. Day Day’s value, he’s very fast, and he’s a tackle. He plays on defense.
“You have AJ Green, you have Matt Landers and Isaiah Sategna plays there, as well. So, those are four I’m excited about. They’re all fast kids, and we’ve just got to see who can get in there and get physical the most.”
What makes a good special teams player?
“At the end of the day, you love to have a ton of running backs and linebackers on your team, and big safeties, right,” Fountain said. “So I’m always, with the young guys in particular, I go back… And when we sign them, I go back and watch their high school tape, say, ‘What can he play on punt? Or what can he play on punt return for us?
He sees freshmen defensive tackle Nico Davillier and defensive ends Jashaud Stewart and Eric Thomas as a trio of game-changers on special teams.
“…So, to me, boy, those guys bring such value… People like that do a lot of good things for me on teams because they’re bigger guys, and they can run well, so that’s another area that I look at.”
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