Wildcats will have to kick up the slack

ccosby@herald-leader.comAugust 20, 2008 

  • Coach: Steve Ortmayer is in his sixth season coaching special teams at Kentucky. He has also coached the special-teams units with the NFL's Oakland Raiders and Green Bay Packers. Ortmayer also worked for UK Coach Rich Brooks with the St. Louis Rams. In addition to coaching special teams at UK, Ortmayer coaches tight ends and is the assistant head coach.

    The main man: Tim Masthay won the UK Special Teams Player of the Year Award for his multiple contributions. In addition to averaging 39.8 yards per punt, Masthay led the SEC with 23 kickoffs for touchbacks.

    The supporting cast: Kicker Lones Seiber gets heavily scrutinized, but the junior from Knoxville did set the single-season ­scoring record for a kicker in 2007. Senior Dicky Lyons Jr. will be the Wildcats' No. 1 receiver and could also handle both punt and kick returns. Sophomore Brad Hart is the snapper on field goals and extra points, while J.J. Helton handles the snap on punts.

    Newcomer to watch: Redshirt freshman Ryan Tydlacka can handle both punting and place-kicking duties and has been pushing Masthay in fall camp.

    Reasons for optimism: Both Seiber and Masthay are experienced kickers, and Lyons gives the unit a dangerous return man as well.

    Reasons for concern: While experienced, neither Seiber nor Masthay has been able to provide the consistency that Brooks would like. Outside of Lyons, the kick returners are mostly green.

    Outlook: The Cats will need a much better performance from this unit than they got last year. Seiber and Masthay improving their reliability, and Lyons providing some juice in the return game, could be the difference between qualifying for a bowl and staying home in December.

    CHIP COSBY

When you consider all of the offensive firepower Kentucky lost from last year, it's a pretty safe assumption that points will be harder to come by in 2008.

That puts more of a premium on kicker Lones Seiber cashing in three points when the opportunity arises, on punter Tim Masthay being more consistent in pinning teams in their own territory, and on the return game getting back to its outstanding form of 2005 and 2006.

“I don't think there's any question that the kicking game is going to be more important than it's been in several years for us,” UK Coach Rich Brooks said. “We obviously don't have the explosion right now on offense. (Special teams) is always important, but it's more important this year. We averaged 36 points a game last year. I don't see that happening this year, so we better find ways to win games.”

That puts Seiber front and center at a position where everybody seems to remember the kicks you miss and forget the ones you make. Seiber nailed four of his five field-goal attempts in Kentucky's first scrimmage last Saturday, including a 52-yarder near the conclusion. Not a bad day at the office by any means.

But when Brooks met with the media afterward, the first thing he mentioned was the chip shot that Seiber missed at the beginning of the scrimmage instead of the 52-yarder he made with room to spare.

“I don't think you should ever miss a short field goal,” Brooks said. “That's all he does all day is kick.”

While Seiber's field-goal percentage (64 percent) was the worst in the Southeastern Conference, he made his fair share of big kicks. You could make a case that Seiber was the most valuable player in perhaps the biggest win in school history, UK's 43-37 triple-overtime victory against Louisiana State.

First, he knocked down consecutive fourth-quarter field goals that tied the game at 27, forcing overtime. Then, with Kentucky trailing 37-34 in the second overtime, he stepped up and drilled a 43-yarder to force overtime No. 3.

But those heroics often get lost in the big kick Seiber didn't make. In the season finale against Tennessee, Kentucky sent Seiber out in the second overtime for what would have been a game-winning 34-yard kick. But Seiber's kick was low, and it hit UT lineman Dan Williams in the face mask. The Vols went on to win in four overtimes, extending their streak over the Cats to 23 games.

To his credit, Seiber doesn't seem to have let the high-pressure world of place-kicking get to him.

“It comes with the position,” Seiber said. “There's nothing you can really do about it except block it out and have confidence in yourself and give confidence to your teammates. My whole mentality this summer `has been that this will be my breakout year.”

Masthay is a solid athlete with a big leg; his 23 kickoffs for touchbacks led the SEC. He showed off that leg on several big punts in 2007. He achieved his best single-game average of 47.3 in wins over Louisville and LSU, and he had a career-best 63-yarder against South Carolina.

But there were also too many shanks and poor punts mixed in with those, one reason why his average was only 39.8.

Special-teams coach Steve Ortmayer said he thinks Masthay and Seiber will both enjoy career years.

“I fully expect both of them to be right up there near the top of the SEC,” he said. “ I really do.”

Brooks and Ortmayer are also hoping to get a bigger boost out of the return game. After ranking in the nation's top five in both punt and kick returns in 2005 and finishing in the top 10 in both in 2006, the Wildcats took a major step backward last year. UK finished 45th in kickoff returns and 72nd in punt returns.

Ortmayer said two things held back the return game last year: injuries and poor blocking.

“We've got the same guys back blocking, so we expect to be better in that area,” he said.

The Cats lost their two most dangerous return men in Keenan Burton and Rafael Little, but senior Dicky Lyons Jr. will handle kickoff and punt returns.

Running backs Tony Dixon, Alfonso Smith and Derrick Locke have returned kicks this fall, with freshmen Randall Cobb, Eric Adeyemi and Winston Guy backing up Lyons on punt returns.

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