IU special teams part of winning formula

In trying to teach a young football team how to repeat winning, Indiana coach Tom Allen has collected highlight clips to show at Monday morning’s team meeting.

There were 11 from the Nebraska win. One, the violent shot redshirt junior Peyton Ramsey took to the sternum on a pass completion, checks the boxes most would expect.

It displayed physicality and toughness. It revealed the heart and grit of the Hoosiers’ backup quarterback.

But then there was another play, which may get overlooked amongst the pad-popping and helmet-paint-swapping. It was senior punter Haydon Whitehead directing a football skyward, arcing toward the Nebraska 8 yard line.

Yes, a punt.

That’s because a fair catch inside the 10 turned into a three-and-out, which combined with a shanked Cornhusker punt, started a Hoosier drive 35 yards from the goal line.

That’s winning football, too.

“It’s field position. It’s momentum. It’s play-calling,” Allen said. “When you’re backed up like that, it just makes it hard for the offense and defense. Their goal is make them punt from down there and just keep the field position.”

While special teams plays rarely result in touchdowns directly, it’s an integral part of the game the Hoosiers are never going to overlook. Allen was a standout punter at Maranatha Baptist University. He knows.

Allen’s first job in the college ranks was as a defensive backs and special teams coach at Wabash College. He was eventually a special teams and linebackers coach at Ole Miss before jumping to South Florida as defensive coordinator.

So there has always been an outsized emphasis on special teams during Allen’s tenure. Whitehead’s three punts inside the 10, part of the difference in a 38-31 win, were not going to be left out of Allen’s highlights for Monday.

“The thing that’s special about Indiana special teams is how much emphasis and pride the other guys that play offense or defensive positions put on special teams,” Whitehead said. “I know during practice, during the offseason and stuff, we have guys coming out to catch punts, wanting to play a return role, guys are really eager to be on punt team, kickoff return, kickoff team.

“As a whole the team, and that starts with Coach Allen, everyone really puts an emphasis on special teams, so the pride when we do get that results is definitely there.”

Whitehead will remind everyone that the success of a punt team doesn’t just relate to the punter himself. On the two that weren’t fair-caught, cornerbacks Jaylin Williams and Raheem Layne put themselves in position to down the ball.

In fact, before the Hoosiers even played Nebraska, Layne was awarded Allen’s “LEO” stick — a painted 2-by-4 that refers to the Hoosiers’ “love each other” mantra — for his work on special teams.

“It’s an unselfish type of mindset he has because, obviously, special teams are important, but when you’re a defensive guy, that’s kind of where a lot of guys’ focus is on,” Allen said. “But he’s bought into what we’re really trying to create too, which is a true team mindset.”

When Allen started talking about special teams, another play that stuck out was safety Bryant Fitzgerald establishing himself out of bounds as he fielded a kickoff, which got the Hoosiers the ball at the 35.

“So just knowing that, instead of getting the ball and then stepping out of bounds when the ball is down right there at the 10, which that’s happened in the past,” Allen said. “So that’s winning football right there. It’s little things like that.”

IU seems determined to put some of on its best athletes its kickoff and punt teams. Of the seven freshmen that have surpassed the NCAA’s four-game limit and burned their redshirt, the Hoosiers have one, linebacker D.K. Bonhomme, who has played almost exclusively on special teams. Another is freshman long snapper Sean Wracher.

Wracher’s name has gone mostly unmentioned this year, which is an extraordinary positive for a rookie snapper. Whitehead had his down moment, an Ohio State game where he had one punt blocked and another shanked, but he has recovered nicely.

Whitehead is averaging 42.6 yards per punt, about 2.5 yards greater than his previous career average. He has 11 punts inside the 10 this season, more than doubling last season’s five.

“You’d have to be pretty special to be perfect all the time,” Whitehead said, thinking back to the OSU game. “That’s one of the things that Coach Allen puts emphasis on. If you do have a bad kick as a specialist, just flush it, move on to the next one, forget about it, and go back to your basics.”

For Whitehead to get all three of his boots downed at the 10, his mechanics had to be in-tune.

But it’s a team effort, as well.

“Once it hits the ground, there’s not much I can do,” Whitehead said. “The main thing is just constant reps, you know, different parts of the field, knowing how much power to put on the ball, how much time it’s going to take for the gunners to get down there.

“I know if the ball is going in the general direction I need it to that they are going to do an awesome job of getting down there and covering it.”

13 comments

    1. Exactly. Coach Allen continues to grow and to impress as a head coach! Indiana’s players continue to grow and to impress! Now beat NW! 7-2 will feel pretty good!

  1. The ST is much better this year and you have to wonder how much it is due to coach Allen take the HC role freeing him up to help with other areas of the team. Wracher is the amazing story on the ST this year as there have been no snap issues at all this year. Next year IU needs replace their kicker and punter but they have good talented ones right behind them.

  2. Not as bad as last year, I agree, but I don’t know that the IUFB special teams are that much better. Conf. rankings: net punting 9th; punt return defense 14th; punt return yds. 12th; kickoff defense 5th; kickoff return yds. 13th. Avoiding disaster (“no snap issues at all this year”) seems to be the main improvement.

    1. Not at all! The 11 punts downed inside the 10 is the key! Last year the total was 5! That is an amazing increase! Those win football games! The yardage and other stats, unless you know the game situations can be meaningless!

  3. Against Nebraska last week, IU’s Punter and punt-coverage players did a great job downing the ball inside the 20 heard line. FG kicking is very good, and aside from a couple bone-headed kickoffs that went out of bounds early in the season, I’d say Special Teams are much improved over last year. But I’m sure there is always room for improvement.

    1. BP and Po, true dat about the coffin corners last week and stats aren’t everything. I was a little harsh. And avoiding disaster is a big deal; special teams are rife with opportunities for that sort of thing.

  4. The key is measurable improvements each season. If it continues over time, you will have a champion. With IUFB it may take longer, but if the program continues to improve, it will get there. Everyone needs to understand that IUFB is unique among all D1 programs. No one in D1 history has been this bad, this long. You don’t turn the historic rut that IUFB has been in for 130 years around overnight. Irrational expectations of a quick turnaround have been as much of the problem for IUFB as has been the inept university leadership.

    If this improvement continues however, everyone should pay close attention because you don’t get to see this everyday. That is being eyewitness to a historic turnaround of a very bad program. What other program out there is this bad in comparison. It will take a long time to find another program in D1 football to compare if TA is able to drag IUFB out of this rut.

  5. And while our Thomas the Train…finally fights its mighty patient fight up from out of the eternal rut to tackle the greatest come-from-behind incline, football may accelerate at a far faster rate in its decline in popularity because of the proven damages it can do to a young and healthy mind.

    Patience may be on our side…(It’s a given as always being on our side), but it’s not on the side of football.

  6. You sure get irritated when you don’t get your way… Don’t stomp your feet to bed, Chester….The Polygraph Tester.

  7. Knock it off, you guys. First, no one wants to scroll down to read your spat, and second, I enjoy both of you being on here and don’t want anything to change.

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