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2016 Vanderbilt Football Position Previews: Special Teams

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If you’re going to be a defense-and-ball-control team, you can’t suck at special teams. You just can’t.

NCAA Football: Missouri at Vanderbilt Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

If you thought Vanderbilt’s offense was a Deepwater Horizon-level disaster, the special teams unit might have been worse in 2015. The Commodores ranked 125th (out of 128 teams) in Special Teams S&P+.

That’s... horrendous. So naturally, former special teams coordinator Charles Bankins was dismissed and in his place steps Jeff Genyk, who served two stints as special teams coordinator at Northwestern (his most recent job) and also stints at Wisconsin and Cal. He was also Eastern Michigan’s head coach from 2004-08.

To be blunt, this unit just has to get better in 2016. If you’re relying on your defense to win -- which Vanderbilt is — you just can’t have that defense facing short fields, and you especially can’t give up special teams touchdowns.

This unit seemed to have nothing but problems in 2015. So what are the options here?

The Kickers

Tommy Openshaw, redshirt junior: It’s bad enough that I had to write “kickers,” plural. Openshaw handled both kicking and punting in 2015, but is likely to cede the latter duty to incoming freshman Sam Loy. Openshaw was 7-of-11 on field goals beyond 40 yards, and he was 14-of-14 on extra points. That’s fine. What’s not fine is going just 5-of-8 inside 40 yards, and that includes a miss from 28 yards in the Western Kentucky game. You’ll recall that Vanderbilt lost that game by two points. We won’t discuss Openshaw’s punting since he won’t be doing that any more, but it was an issue as well (granted, the punt coverage was a bigger issue than the actual punts, but... details.)

Hayden Lekacz, junior: It’s probably saying something that Mason had Lekacz, a walk-on, handle kickoff duties rather than Openshaw. Lekacz wasn’t anything special as a kickoff specialist; just 10 of his 45 kickoffs on the year went for touchbacks. He was also 4-of-4 on extra points. We’d expect Sam Loy to take over kickoff duties this year, but Lekacz (or freshman Ryley Guay, another walk-on) could see some action if Openshaw starts getting the yips again on field goals.

The Punter

Sam Loy, freshman: To say that Loy, a 6’1”, 195-pound true freshman from San Clemente, California, has a big leg might be an understatement. Per the team site, he had punts of 69 and 75 yards in high school, didn’t have a single touchback on punts as a senior, and pinned opponents inside the 20 on 15 of 35 punts. He also only allowed one of 51 kickoffs to be returned (I’m guessing this means the other 50 were touchbacks?) We’re expecting Loy to handle the punting and kickoff duties as a true freshman, which should immediately improve both.

The Returners

Darrius Sims: After housing two kickoffs in 2014, Sims had a much quieter 2015 with a return average of 19.9 yards (down from 24.5 yards in 2014) and no touchdowns; Dallas Rivers actually had a slightly higher return average at 20.7 yards. We expect Sims to be back returning kicks in 2016; a return to his 2014 form would be welcome.

Ryan White: White was, let’s say, a problem as a punt returner in 2015. Of his 20 punt returns, 15 were fair catches, and he had three fumbles (one of which was lost.) His 7.5-yard return average wasn’t too bad, but it’s actually pretty fair to say Vanderbilt’s punt return game was nonexistent in 2015. That needs to improve. Of course, with White possibly moving into a starting role at safety, he might not be returning punts any more either way.

Trey Ellis: Ellis, a walk-on, was the team’s “primary” punt returner in 2014 (he returned just nine punts, though, which tells you about how often the 2014 team was able to force punts.) Last year he only returned four punts as he ceded most of the return duties to White, but Ellis could be back returning punts again. Either way, unless something changes, this doesn’t appear to be a strength for Vanderbilt.

The Long Snappers

Wilson Johnson and Jacob Schultz, seniors: If you didn’t know either of their names, that’s probably a good sign. Johnson was the team’s long snapper in the first two games before getting hurt, with Schultz handling the duties later in the season. We didn’t get any kicks blocked last year that I can remember so... yay? I really don’t have much useful information about this, but one of these guys (or redshirt sophomore Davis Winkie) is going to be the long snapper.