Editor’s note: This is the seventh and final in a series about the 2011 Bryant Hornets football team in advance of the season opener against Benton on Friday, Sept. 2.
By Rob Patrick
Because they know how crucial it can be, each of the coaches on the Bryant Hornets staff takes a[more] facet of special teams. (Of course, it also helps to share the load on a six-man staff with the number of players at a Class 7A school.)
Special teams play has been a key ingredient to the success of the Hornets in recent years and this season figured to be no different.
It starts with kicker Jace Denker who enters his senior season with 14 field goals in the previous two years. He’s also converted 72 of 79 extra points. On kickoffs, he can kick it halfway through the end zone, ground it, or pooch it effectively, whatever the kick coverage calls for.
“He’s very much a weapon,” acknowledged defensive line coach Brad Stroud who coaches the field goal and extra point teams. “He’s done well so far. We’re careful about holding back a little bit because, to start off the football season, (kickers) have a tendency to work too hard and get dead-legged, fatigued and they something bad happens. So we’ve held him back and he kind of knows.
“Our trouble has been trying to find a holder,” the coach mentioned. “Right now, (cornerback) Aaron Bell is the holder and we’ve got another boy that’s moved in named Tyler Haden. He was here in junior high. He’s been in Texas but has come back. He held for his team in Texas. We’ll make a decision about that when we get to game time.”
Tight end Nate Rutherford is handling the snaps for placements.
“He’s done a good job,” Stroud stated. “As long as we’ve got our snapper, holder and kicker all working together — they can’t get enough reps so they can all get comfortable and get used to each other.
“And we’re really big across the front,” he mentioned. “We’re a little bit bigger — I know we had A.J. (Johnson) and (Josh) Hampton last year but this is a pretty big bunch too, to protect.”
But having a kicker as experienced and productive as Denker is the no small thing.
“With any team, if you’ve got a field goal weapon that can hit it from 30, 40 yards, that’s a big plus in high school,” Stroud noted.
Last year, Denker’s longest came from 47 yards. He also was good from 44 and, as a sophomore, he knocked through a pair of field goals from 42 yards out.
This season, he’ll also add the punting duties. He figures to be pretty good at that too since he served as the starting goalkeeper on the Bryant High soccer team. That also makes him more than a conventional punter.
“We’re working both spread punt and our rugby-stye punt,” noted secondary coach John Wells, who works with the punt coverage team. “Last year, we worked the rugby-style. With the speed that we have at our gunners, that gives us just a little extra time to get them down there. The philosophy is, protection first and then force a fair catch.
“The thing I like with Jace and (backup Josh) Lowry is that one’s left-footed and one’s right-footed,” he noted. “We can rugby left, where we put the punter moving left, with Jace then we can rugby right with Lowry. So we’re working them both.
“We still have the ability to spread both gunners out and do more of a straight-ahead punt but they’re getting more and more consistent so I think we should be able to do both styles.”
Rutherford has developed into the deep snapper for punts too.
“He’s been very consistent and (senior linebacker) Parker Dunn is right there with him,” Wells said. “So we’re working them both. There’s a concern sometimes with the same snapper for punt and extra point and field goal but, with the way we do rugby punt, we’re at 10-11 (yards back). It’s not like we’re at spread punt where we back there at 13 yards. We’ve been pleased with the way Nate has come along, plus we like the way he steps and protects because the snapper has to protect that A gap too.”
The gunners, Wells mentioned, are the speed guys, the first ones down in coverage. Dillon Winfrey proved to be an asset in that spot last season and will be among those handling the duties again this year.
“Dillon and Aaron Bell and, pretty much, our corners,” Wells said. “Our philosophy is, kick it that way, let the gunner get down there and he can make a big play right when the ball’s being caught or make them fair-catch it. And we’re fine with it rolling 20 yards too.”
Wells added that will linebacker Walter Dunn has been working on the other side as a gunner.
“Speed, but also good tacklers,” he emphasized.
Winfrey will return punts occasionally as well, but primarily it will be Sawyer Nichols deep and Karon Dismuke short.
“Very good hands and when he gets the ball, he can do some things with it,” said defensive coordinator Steve Griffith of Nichols. “Karon will take care of any short balls and he’s also an outstanding blocker to be back there to protect Nichols.”
What Griffith specializes in, though, is putting pressure on the punter. Every year, the Hornets seem to come up with blocked punts at key times. It’s become a matter of pride to those who have that duty.
“We will continue to do that,” Griffith allowed. “We will continue to have several calls where absolutely our main concern is to block the punt. But we’ve also been working on a couple of returns where we are assigning a couple of guys to pressure the kick but we’re also looking to set up a return because we feel like Sawyer is a weapon. And sometimes we’ll have Dillon back there. We want them to get the ball and have an opportunity.
“At the same time, we’ve found in the past that sometimes the best, most effective punt return is when you’re putting tremendous pressure on,” he noted. “The kicking team feels obligated to stay and protest and protect and protect, and it frees up your return guys. Running lanes open up.
“Our main objective is, number one, to field that football. And then if we can get a first down out of it, if we can get 10 yards from the point where they catch the football, we feel like it’s been a successful return. But, with the guys we’ve got there, we’re going to try to set up a couple of things where we can maybe pop it beyond that and make it an effective offensive weapon.”
Winfrey, whose scintillating kickoff return for a touchdown turned the momentum of Bryant’s win over unbeaten Conway last season, will be the primary return man this season as well. He’ll be flanked by Aaron Bell and receiver Hayden “Petey” Daniel primarily, but also running back Jalen Bell.
“We’ve got several guys that can rotate in,” stated receivers coach Jason Hay, who is in charge of returns. “Obviously, ‘Weezy’ (Winfrey) is a guy that people are going to kick away from after the year he had last year with his speed.In front of the deep trio will be bigger guys like running back/receiver/linebacker Ben Clark and linebacker/tight end Marshall Everett.
“We’ve been pretty strong on return,” Hay said. “Hopefully, you’re not out there more than once or twice a game so we’re going to try to make it count when we get it.”