September 19, 2008

Waiting to Make Their Mark

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Players selected for the task of special teams have an interesting job. For many, their careers exist in short, highly concentrated bursts of adrenaline, followed by longer periods of anxious waiting from the sidelines. The football special teams unit shares more than just a name with military Special Ops forces — they may be small and infrequently deployed, but never underestimate their power or the lightning fast way they can exert their influence over the game. One special teams play can be the difference between a win and a loss.
Last year, Cornell had one of the top special teams units in the nation, and is happy to have a majority of its players return for the 2008 season. The Red found success in both the kicking and returning aspects, while also holding opposing teams to one of the lowest kickoff and punt return averages.
After coaching the running backs last season, second-year assistant Travis Burkett will be taking over the control of the unit.
“[Burkett’s] a little more laid back,” said senior punter Nick Maxwell, comparing the new coach to 2007 special teams coach Zac Roper. “He tries to get us up and stay positive all of the time, where [Roper] would yell and scream at us a little too much.”
Burkett has jumped into the job with an impressive amount of enthusiasm and drive.
“We spend at least 45 minutes of practice focusing on special teams,” said sophomore kicker Brad Greenway. “A lot of teams don’t do that. Coach Burkett has really emphasized just how important special teams is. We break down every single team. It just seems like our special teams unit is just going to be a huge advantage to us.”
With many of Cornell’s star offensive and defensive players pulling double duty as part of the unit, Greenway said the team is confident in its abilities for the upcoming season.
“Our slogan this year is ‘Finish’ and that’s what Coach Burkett emphasizes,” Greenway said. “If we finish on special teams that’s going to give us an edge and we should be able to win games just off of that.”
Maxwell is expected to remain the Red’s punter, his third year in the top spot. Last season, Maxwell averaged more than 39 yards per punt and 14 of his 47 total punts landed inside the opposing team’s 20-yard line. Maxwell’s career yardage average remains among the top in the conference at just over 38 yards per attempt.
There are three other kickers vying for Maxwell’s place, however. Senior Michael Bolling, sophomore Drew Alston and Greenway will all be waiting in the wings for their big break, as well as sophomore Alex Perilstein and freshman John LaBarre.
Junior Bryan Walters will try and replicate his return success of last season, when he was one of the league’s most dangerous returners. In 2007, Walters set a new Cornell record for punt return yards in a season (345 yards), and is currently averaging 144.4 all-purpose yards per game for his career — second on the Red’s all-time list behind Hall of Famer Ed Marinaro. Walters was ranked in the top-25 nationally in all-purpose yardage as well as in punt return yardage. The speedy big man was also three-time Ivy League athlete of the week.
Walters said that most of the principles from last year will carry over into the 2008 season, as far as special teams was concerned.
“The core things have all stayed the same, especially as a returner,” he said. “The main focus is just on ball security. The core principals for special teams will never change, but there are some little tweaks in the scheme. This year we’re going to focus more on trying to block the punt, which in the long run will help the return game a lot.
Teams will have to start staying in more, allowing more time to catch the ball and more space.”