The wizardry of Oz.
Special teams became a subject of special concern for the UO football team last season.
There were two fumbled punts against Arizona, which led to 10 points for the Wildcats, who escaped a cold and foggy Autzen Stadium with an unlikely 37-10 win, the Ducks' only home loss of the year.
That debacle was followed by a meltdown in the kicking game in the 110th edition of the Civil War at Reser Stadium.
Oregon's Paul Martinez inexplicably missed two field goals from less than 40 yards and had an extra-point attempt blocked. He was replaced by back-up Matt Evensen, whose potential game-winning field goal from 44 yards with 20 seconds left was blocked by OSU defensive tackle Ben Siegert.
The Ducks finished dead last in the Pac-10 conference in net punting with a 33.3-yard average, the fourth straight year Oregon languished in the bottom half of the league in that category.
Clearly, something had to be done.
Enter Tom Osborne.
After six years at Arizona State, the 46-year-old Osborne was brought back to Eugene to serve in the identical capacity - special teams coordinator and tight ends coach - as his previous stint with the Ducks from 1995-2000.
Those duties were split among several Oregon coaches last year.
And three games into the 2007 season, as the 13th-ranked Ducks (3-0) prepare for Saturday's Pac-10 opener at Stanford (1-1), the UO special teams appear to be rejuvenated in nearly every aspect, a development that head coach Mike Bellotti said can be traced to Osborne's leadership and experience.
`We're doing a lot of things the same, yet we're doing them better,' Bellotti said. `We're doing a better job of covering, but the real improvement, in my mind, has been in our net punting, which has been significant.
`Those are two things which are directly attributable to Tom Osborne and his schemes, his teaching, his motivation and his energy.'
For his part, Osborne deflects any praise to the players.
After all, he noted, nobody comes to Oregon to be on special teams. They all want to be starters, and it takes `tremendous passion and heart' to succeed in areas that receive little attention unless something goes awry.
`The players are making the plays,' Osborne said. `They deserve all the credit for any success we've had so far ... I've been very happy with our guys, with their effort level and their sense of urgency to try and make an impact on the outcome of a game. It's a fun group to work with. They're very attentive and they want to learn.'
Two plays against Fresno State last Saturday illustrate Oregon's improvement on special teams.
Junior Patrick Chung, who rotates as one of the outside `gunners' on the punt coverage team, timed his hit perfectly to take down FSU's Clifton Smith for no gain in the middle of the field. No other UO defender was within 15 yards of the tackle.
The bigger test, however, came when junior punter Josh Syria - who leads the league with a 44.4-yard average - had to punt from the back of the end zone after the Ducks were stopped at their own 1-yard line.
Facing an all-out Bulldog blitz, Syria calmly booted the ball 50 yards with no return as the ball bounced out of bounds.
`You can't ask for anything better than that,' Osborne said. `Josh stood in there like it was just another practice kick. We've been very happy with his progress. He seems to perform better when he gets to the stadium under the bright lights.'
Syria's booming kicks (17th in the nation) and the Ducks' tight coverage have combined to catapult them to the top of the Pac-10 rankings in net punting with an average of 39.5 yards, 15th-best in the country.
Oregon also finds itself among the league leaders in returning kicks.
Senior Andiel Brown, a former walk-on from Cleveland High School in Portland, seems to have found his niche as the team's No. 1 punt returner. Brown is third in the league at 11.2 yards per return.
And most important, no turnovers.
`Andiel catches the ball with more consistency than anybody else we have,' Osborne said. `He has a lot of courage and he does a good job fielding the ball.'
Brown's emergence was stalled by a broken hand last season. He suffered the injury against Portland State, when a 300-pound lineman fell on his hand as he was making a block near the goal line.
`Our punt return team is much more aggressive this year,' Brown said. `We're really looking to spring some big plays ... I feel like it's a big part of what we do, and it's something that was really lacking last year.'
Jonathan Stewart is a familiar sight on kickoff returns.
The junior tailback ranks No. 2 in the league (28.2 yards), and as a team, the Ducks are 11th nationally, trailing only California in the Pac-10. Sophomores Andre Crenshaw and Derrick Jones each have returned one kickoff, with Jones popping a 32-yard return against Fresno State.
That overall average would be a lot higher if Stewart had been able to elude the Houston place-kicker on his 44-yard return, or if the speedy Jones had not been brought down by the FSU kicker.
As you might expect, both players took some grief over those stops.
`I was all over them, all week long,' joked Osborne, who added that Jones could get a shot at returning punts this season if he continues to improve in practice. `I'm still on Stewart about that first game.'
Evensen, a junior, is in his third season as the UO kickoff specialist.
The former three-sport standout from Portland's Franklin High also has made three of his four field-goal attempts - including kicks of 44 and 45 yards against Houston - after making just 1-of-3 last season.
Oregon is perfect on 17 PATs this year, with freshman Daniel Padilla and Evensen sharing those duties.
Although he has one only touchback, Evensen's ability to drive the ball into the end zone is magnified after a new NCAA rule pushed kickoffs back five yards to the 30-yard line.
`I don't think it has affected me much,' Evensen said. `When I kick the ball, it tends to draw left, and with that extra five yards, I've kicked a couple of balls out of bounds right near the 1-yard line. That's the only downside.'
Otherwise, things are looking up for the UO special teams, and the players all point to Osborne as the catalyst.
`He gets me fired up,' Brown said. `I think he's made a big difference. He knows his stuff and he's so animated. That's what he's all about.
`Not to take anything away from the other coaches, but things were divvied up among them last year, and now we have one guy to look to, and I'm very confident in him as a coach. Every time we step on the field, we know we can put ourselves in position to make a big play.'
OREGON AT STANFORD 7 p.m. Saturday, Stanford Stadium. TV: None. Radio: KUGN-AM (590), KZEL-FM (96.1). More UO football at www.registerguard.com/blogs
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|Title Annotation:||Sports; Oregon's special teams flourish with return of a former assistant coach|
|Publication:||The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)|
|Date:||Sep 20, 2007|
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