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The Bradsher Beat
Wednesday, September 3, 2008

By Bethany Bradsher

Special teams in for makeover

By Bethany Bradsher
All rights reserved.

It was one electrifying, pivotal play.

—  T.J. Lee’s punt block and subsequent touchdown against Virginia Tech has been nominated as a finalist for the Pontiac Game Changing Performance.

—  Lee is one of four finalists for the AT&T All-America Player of the Week.

—  The block was recognized as ESPN’s “Wild Play of the Week” during Monday night’s Tennessee-UCLA game.

Lee's special play is also the sum total of East Carolina's week one special teams highlight film.

Coach Skip Holtz has no wish to subtract any credit from Lee’s clutch play in the fourth quarter of Saturday’s victory. But he has asked the team to see it as a flash of brilliance in a fog of sloppiness.

“T.J.’s play was awesome,” he said. “It was a great individual effort. I can’t say enough good things about it. Outside of that, I thought our special teams were awful.

“We missed a field goal; we had an extra point blocked; we had two opportunities to pooch punt and we punted them both into the end zone; we had a kickoff return run back to the 48-yard line with a penalty; we had a kickoff return that (we) fumbled the ball and gave it to them on the 25 and they scored seven points; and we had another kickoff return that we bobbled the ball and we started on the 8-yard line.

"I thought it was a debacle of errors. I thought it was absolutely terrible, outside of one play.”

With the West Virginia game and the memory of what Holtz calls “the worst beating I’ve taken since I’ve been here” fast approaching, the coaching staff is focusing on a two-step improvement program for the special teams: intense practice and film session to correct errors and an infusion of more experienced players into some aspects of the special-teams units.

The latter technique is tricky, special teams coordinator Vernon Hargreaves said, because young, talented players must have game-day experience to progress as players, but special teams plays are too important to use strictly as training ground.

So the coaches are trying to strike a compromise, Holtz said, with the veterans serving as inspiration and example to the newcomers.

“We’ve tried to take some of these starters off the special teams and give these young guys an opportunity to step on the field,” Holtz said. “They have talent, they have athleticism, but they don’t do the little things the right way, and we’re going to have to change our special teams drastically to get guys on the field that understand how important it is, when they cross that line, the responsibility they have to everybody else who puts that uniform on that morning.”

Lee, who was named C-USA Special Teams Player of the Week on Monday and had 32 messages on his phone after the game Saturday, said that he and his teammates are moving forward with an eye on making the right plays at the right times.

“We work on it every day, just coming out, working hard, getting the alignments,” Lee said. “As a team, we’re going to try to go after them again.”

Another special-teams player who won’t be able to avoid the spotlight is Ben Ryan, the walk-on freshman from Wingate who has become the starting placekicker in place of the injured Ben Hartman. Ryan’s collegiate debut was mixed – he missed a 39-yard field goal and one extra point and made three other extra points – but he feels confident that he can surpass that standard against the Mountaineers.

“I was unusually calm,” Ryan said of the Virginia Tech contest. “I missed that one kick. I lined up wrong, but I can’t dwell on that. Just put that behind me, take it one kick at a time and come out here with every kick and try to get better.

“Walking on in the spring, Holtz gave me an opportunity that 95 percent of other Division I schools would probably not have given a kicker. So this is a big opportunity for me. I’m just trying to make the most of it.”

Hargreaves has already used Lee’s play as a teaching tool for the other players who line up on his units, as evidence that one play can transform a game.

Last year many of his special teams standbys were older players who had a strong sense of urgency, he said, and he is working to instill that drive in the younger players in his charge.

“It’s the whole growing pains thing,” Hargreaves said. “We’re talented enough. Now we’ve got to keep grinding them and keep working on the little stuff. It’s repetition and them just taking it to heart. It’s got to be important to them.“

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09/22/2008 04:11:04 AM

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