Kickoff unit displays explosiveness with fast start

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Sophomore cornerback Josh Turner (25) makes a tackle during a kickoff in the Longhorns' 37-17 win over Wyoming.

Photo Credit: Elisabeth Dillon | Daily Texan Staff

It happens quickly. The ball is pounded off the tee and then 10 burnt orange beasts rumble down the hash marks with one goal in mind: stop the football.

Then a few seconds later, one or multiple members of the group connect with their target, and sparks fly.

That attacking mentality has earned the Longhorns’ kickoff coverage unit the nickname the “Wild Bunch,” and it’s a perfect fit.

“We are called the “Wild Bunch” for a reason,” linebacker Tevin Jackson said. “We run down there like a bunch of wild men just ready to tackle the ball carrier.”

They’re not only wild, but effective too. Texas’ kickoff team is ranked third in the nation in yards per return, allowing 12.6 yards per attempt. Even more impressively, the longest return the unit has allowed is 15 yards.

This has put opponents in a brutal position. On almost every possession they’re starting behind their own 20-yard line, tough under any circumstance, but even more difficult against the Longhorns because opposing offenses will be forced to go at least 80 yards against one of the top rated defenses in the country. Texas’ defense is ranked eighth in the FBS allowing 8.5 points a contest.

This makes the kickoff unit the Longhorns’ first line of defense. Most of the time they get on the field the play before the defense, and it’s up to them to hold premier field position and get the team animated, roles the “Wild Bunch” takes a ton of pride in.

“We set the tone,” linebacker Dalton Santos said. “We come down there and lock somebody up, and [senior S] Kenny Vaccaro is going to go crazy. [Senior DE Alex] “AO” [Okafor] is going to go crazy. The fans go crazy. And when the fans go crazy, we feed off of it. So just that alone is really neat. We take tremendous pride in it."

Before every kick it’s the unit’s goal to keep the opponent behind their own 15-yard-line, a task it has accomplished with considerable success. However, for a team to rank among the country’s finest it takes more than a barbaric mentality. The group must also have discipline.

Every good special teams unit has players with a high motor and an intense mindset, but the best kickoff coverage teams are technically sound. This means staying in the right lanes and following the game plan to contain the return man to a particular area.

Texas has been strong in this aspect due to a heavy emphasis on special teams by Mack Brown in the offseason. But the players also put in a lot of work to balance their wild attitudes with their technical savvy.

“It is a pride thing,” Jackson said. “We are out there being wild men, but we have our keys and our assignments that we have to keep.”

They’ve found the balance this season, and the results have been evident. It seems like every quarter Santos or someone else on the unit has made a bone-crunching tackle.

But the glory hits only go to 10 members of the unit, the 11th is the unsung hero and perhaps the most important of the group.

Placekicker Nick Rose is the starting gun to the “Wild Bunch’s” race to the ball. Once the ball leaves his foot he’s overlooked, but the height he puts on the football is key to the unit’s success.

“Nick Rose’s hang time has been unbelievable,” head coach Mack Brown said. “The guys are excited about covering, because the ball hangs there up so long.”

Rose’s teammates certainly appreciate his cannon of a leg because it gives them the opportunity to do what they do best — lay opponents out.

Printed on Friday, September 14, 2012 as: A WILD BUNCH - Kickoff unit displays explosiveness with fast start