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Spring Football - Breaking Down the Special Teams

By Brian Gosset

During the 2014 season, the NAU football team will have to deal with the losses of some key players, in all aspects of the game. On the special teams front, the Lumberjacks start their spring season without Andy Wilder, who has been one of the best kickers/punters in the nation over the past couple of years.

Returning for NAU will be junior Ryan Hawkins with a wealth of experience under his belt. Last season, Hawkins was 8-of-9 on PATs and in 2012, he kicked off 45 times with 34 touchbacks.

Touchbacks are a big part of special teams as it allows the defense to start deep in the opponent's territory. It also doesn't allow the other team to get off a good return.

"Starting at the 25-yard line really gives the defense the advantage because there's so much emphasis on where the ball is placed," Hawkins said.

On the other side of the ball, the offense always likes to start with good field position, whether off kickoffs or punts.

"It's so important; when we're not backed up on our own red zone it really gives us an advantage," said senior tight end R.J. Rickert, who contributes on special teams. "If we can get the ball over the 50-yard line, even if we don't score, we can pin them back and play the field-advantage game. Once we get past the 50-yard line, that's when we're more successful."

Wilder finished fourth last season in both punting and field goals and ranked first in the conference in punting during 2012, the year he earned multiple First Team All-America honors. Hawkins knows he can continue to get better by staying consistent.

"If you can put the ball where you want it, where the coaches want it every time, they're happy and that's what helps your team the most," Hawkins said.

One position that gets overlooked and never earns the respect they deserve is the long snapper, which in this case is shared by seniors Andy Bachelier and Hayden Renning.

Bachelier appeared in eight games last season before going down with a hand injury, but he too knows that snappers can get better during every practice.

"It's kind of like kicking, just being consistent and getting a good spiral on the ball, pointing it back on the spot," Bachelier said.

In 2013, NAU netted 40.2 yards per punt, which ranked second in the Big Sky, while ranking third with a net average of 41.1 yards per kickoff. Whether it's on kickoff or punt, a big part of special teams is changing field position.

"The biggest thing is being able to flip the field position," Bachelier said. "Andy did a great job last year pinning the other team inside the 20-yard line a lot, so we're looking to continue that this year. Whether it's on field goal, punt or kickoff, we want to help the defense out as much as we can."

Head coach Jerome Souers believes that special teams is a big reason why the Lumberjacks have been successful the last two seasons. Coach David Reeves enters his sixth season as the special teams coordinator.

"Guys take pride on special teams here," Rickert said. "Ever since I came here four years ago, people have been fighting to get on special teams."

Two players that saw significant time in the return game last season were senior Randy Hale Jr. and junior Marcus Alford.

Alford only returned five kickoffs, but had three returns for 133 yards, including the game-winning 96-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against Cal Poly.

Hale Jr. led the team with nine kickoff returns for 198 yards and also had a team-high 12 punt returns. He recorded a season-high five kickoff returns for 108 yards against Montana State.

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