CHARLESTON, S.C. - The Charleston Southern Sports Information Department is providing a position-by-position preview of the Buccaneers' 2017 squad heading into the September 2 kickoff at Mississippi State. In today's edition, we look at the specialists and talk with Kickers & Punters Coach and Director of Football Operations David Padilla.
Other Returners: K Jacob Smoak
Lost: P Truett Burns, KR/PR Darius Hammond
Additions/Newcomers: K Alex Usry
Four Things to Watch from the CSU Specialists
The kicking game has been one of the more entertaining battles to watch throughout camp as returning starter Tyler Tekac, Jacob Smoak, and freshman Alex Usry have all been in the rotation throughout camp. The job remains firmly in Tekac's hands as the junior kicker has converted 11-of-17 field goal attempts lifetime with the Bucs, including hitting his last 16 attempts to close out the 2016 season. Jacob Smoak adds a powerful leg to the roster hitting on a career-high 46-yard attempt last season at North Dakota State and narrowly missed on a 51-yarder that would have topped the Bison. Usry adds another dimension to the kicking game with a strong leg and good accuracy that will only get better as he continues to hone his mechanics and get used to the speed of the college game.
"Tyler has shown great improvement over the spring, and into the fall," Padilla said. "He dedicated himself to his workouts over the summer and Coach (Mark) Tucker has expressed how pleased he is with his kicking. I'm excited to see where he's going, especially when you compare where he was in his first game two years ago against The Citadel, to where he is today."
Padilla continued, "We also know Jacob has the length strength and the ability to put the ball through the uprights. He is working just as hard to earn the starting spot. Our newcomer, Alex, has the length strength and the ability to convert. His mechanics are getting better, but he has the tools. The more we get him in the repetitions; he's going to continue to be a solid competitor. I'm pleased with where we are with the competition we have in the group."
Replacing a Legend
Ethan Ray has a tall task on September 2 in Starkville, Miss. as the redshirt freshman will be replacing All-American long snapper and three-year starter Joseph Smith this season when the Buccaneers' special teams takes the field. A Boiling Springs, S.C. native, Ray spent the previous year shadowing Smith who earned Second Team All-American honors in 2015 from STATS FCS. Ray graded out at 100 percent during his playing career at Boiling Springs High School and earned Special Teams Player of the Year honors in his senior season.
"We first met Ethan at a prospect camp and he came in last year as a walk-on," Padilla said. "He basically mimicked Joe last year; he stayed next to him, watched how he snapped, got out and snapped with him. He learned from Joe and was trained by him. Losing Joe will hurt, but I'm confident in what Ethan is able to produce because he's had a good teacher. We're pleased with what we're seeing; he's adapted to the punt schemes and is putting the ball right where we need it."
Distance and Placement
Along with the changing of the guard at long snapper, a new punter will also be on the field for CSU to open the 2017 season as Kyle Reighard takes over the starting punting duties. Burns averaged 37.7 yards per attempt last season while mostly employing a rugby-style motion that utilized the ball bouncing on the turf at Buccaneer Field. With Reighard taking over the reins this season, CSU will be looking to employ more of a traditional look in their punt game in the 2017 season.
"Losing Truett, we decided to change our game up a little bit with the punt unit this season," Padilla commented. "Kyle gives us an opportunity to be a straight punt team. He's worked his tail off to get there; he's meticulous with his work ethic and he puts in the time to master his craft, even taking advantage of time when there's no one else out there on the field. He's able to place the ball where we need to place it and the hard work he's putting in shows up when it's time to get on the field."
The Battle for Field Position
Replacing the NCAA's leader in kickoff return yard average and the reigning Big South Special Teams Player of the Year in Darius Hammond will be another task for the Bucs this season, but CSU has reason to be excited with a pair of dynamic runners ready to shine in the return game. Hammond burst onto the scene at the end of the 2015 season with a Big South record 295 kickoff return yards in the game and carried the momentum over his final season with an impressive 33.7 yards per return.
This season, UMass transfer James Allen and redshirt junior defensive back Jonathan Slaton are in line to take over the return game for the Bucs to once again put CSU in prime field position on every possession. Allen averaged 23.1 yards per return in 2015 as UMass' primary returner, sitting third in the MAC in the category. Highlighting his season was a 97-yard touchdown return against Bowling Green. Slaton brings toughness to the position having served on the special teams unit each of the past two years. He was a standout at Arabia Mountain High School and was a part of the school's 4x100 meter relay team, running a 10.7 in the 100m dash as a senior in high school.
"It's having the mentality of the next man up that gives us confidence in both James and Jonathan in the returner role this season," Padilla said. "They both key the ball well and they're smart; they can see the field, know where they have to go, and know their routes. It's hard losing Darius, but these guys have the mentality that has helped put them in that role and we're confident they can help us achieve the same things."
Player Spotlight – David Kennedy
It is not possible to discuss the Charleston Southern special teams' units without mentioning the impact of senior David Kennedy. The Summerville, S.C. native has done it all for the CSU unit over the past three seasons serving as the Bucs' primary kicker, punter, kickoff starter, and holder. Leading a unit that finished 15th in the NCAA in kickoff return defense yards, Kennedy once again returns to help the Bucs win the all-important field position battle in 2017.
The senior leader of the unit commented on his time with the Bucs following Bucs' Media Day festivities on Friday afternoon.
"It's been a rollercoaster over the past four years," Kennedy laughed. "My freshman year I wasn't the best, most reliable kicker and it kind of hurt personally. I came back my sophomore year and tried to really impress the coaches and help the team in whatever way I could. I took over the kickoff duties and since then it's been history.
Part of the success Kennedy has had includes the diligent work put in the weight room and on the field throughout the year.
"Everything definitely starts in the weight room," he said. "Coach (Chad) Scott does a great job working with us and I've put on weight since I've gotten here and been working the weights pretty hard. Being out here every day, we've been getting good chemistry with the guys and been focusing on quality reps every day."
One significant aspect Kennedy has taken on over the past year has been stepping up as the team's primary holder in all field goal and PAT situations. For Kennedy, the process was straightforward on acquiring the job.
"The process was pretty simple," he admitted. "Our previous holder, Nathan Perera, graduated in 2015 and I wanted to do it. The first day of spring practice last season, I walked on the field and started catching snaps and no one said anything, and the rest is history."
Being a part of the special teams unit has helped the group become more a family over the past few years.
"Everyone says we're a different breed, and it's true," Kennedy said. "We hang out together all the time, we have dinners, and we hang out at each other's houses. It really helps the team when we're all close like that, have good chemistry and it makes for a great season for the team."
"David Kennedy is our senior guy and our unit captain. There's a sense of confidence that when he goes in, you know the ball will go where it's supposed to go, in a timely fashion. He's probably one of the most confident athletes I've been around; he believes in his game and what he does, and he knows how important his role is for what we're doing. He takes the game seriously and because of that, he's a great team leader. His confidence helps carry our guys." – Kickers/Punters Coach and Director of Football Operations David Padilla
33.7 – Darius Hammond led the FCS last season with an impressive 33.7 yards per kickoff return in the 2016 season. The total was nearly five yards better than St. Francis' Lorenzo Jerome (28.9) and Bryant's Matt Sewall (28.9). The Bucs will be looking for the duo of James Allen and Jonathan Slaton to replace this production in 2017.
17.55 – CSU often won the field position battle and set up the Blue Swarm defense for success by relying on their kickoff coverage in 2016. The Bucs finished 15th in the NCAA in kickoff return defense last season, allowing just 17.55 yards per return for the year.
Charleston Southern begins preparations for Mississippi State as the Bucs start their regular season practice schedule starting on Monday.