John Clay: Greg Nord trying to make Kentucky special teams special

Coach has new ideas for beleaguered unit

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistAugust 10, 2011 

It was not as if Greg Nord had never coached special teams before.

It was just that Greg Nord had never been in charge of special teams, not by way of a title anyway.

So when special teams struggled at times last season, critics pointed a finger at the veteran coach making his second tour of duty at his alma mater, but first as special teams coordinator.

"The only thing about coaching special teams," said Nord after UK's practice on Monday, "is that when you have two guys miss tackles at the 15-yard line and they go for long returns, you don't know how to coach."

Nord knows how to coach. He was an assistant under Jerry Claiborne in the 1980s, when current UK head coach Joker Phillips was a Wildcat. Nord then coached at East Carolina and Georgia Tech before a long, successful run as an assistant at Louisville.

More than one UK coach had tried unsuccessfully to coax Nord into returning to Lexington. When Steve Kragthorpe was fired at U of L, Nord initially accepted an offer from Ron Zook at Illinois. Then Phillips called again. He wanted Nord to coach UK's tight ends and take over the special teams from Steve Ortmayer.

"I told him I wouldn't do it unless everyone was involved," he said. "I might have the title, but it had to be a team effort."

The transition was, well, uneven. Ryan Tydlacka turned in an excellent year punting, averaging 43.8 yards. But opponents averaged 11.9 yards per punt return, to UK's 7.1. Opponents averaged 23.5 yards per kickoff return to UK's 22.8. And while the Cats had Randall Cobb and Derrick Locke returning kicks, it was the opponents who returned two kickoffs for touchdowns.

"Obviously," Nord said, "I want to get better and I want to improve."

So he spent a good deal of the summer talking to other special team coordinators, seeking advice, tweaking schemes.

He met with former South Carolina special teams coach Shane Beamer, who recently joined father Frank's coaching staff at Virginia Tech, for a self-study session.

"We sat down, and I said, 'Here's what I saw out of you, and this is what I was going to beat you with,'" Nord said. "He said, 'Here's what I saw out of you, and this is what I was trying to do.' We kind of sparred around there, and I think we both made each other a little better."

There will be some changes on coverage teams. Partly because of injuries, plenty of wide receiver-types were used to cover kicks last season. That worked well as far as speed goes. It did not work as well as far as tackling goes.

"So we've got to get some of the young defensive players to come along and continue to use the defensive players that did well for us last year," Nord said. "Certainly, it's a lot easier to cover kicks when you've got guys that are used to making tackles out there."

At this time last year, Nord was not sure about his kickers. UK had just lost a "Super Bowl punter," as Nord said, in Tim Masthay. Field-goal kicker Lones Seiber graduated.

Now, Tydlacka is third-team pre-season All-SEC. Craig McIntosh is the established PAT/field-goal kicker. Plus, heralded recruit Joe Mansour, now a sophomore, is more comfortable kicking the ball off the ground.

"That's a big adjustment for a lot of kickers," Nord said.

Conversely, at this time last year, Nord knew Cobb and Locke would return kicks. Now, he is not certain who will be handling runbacks, though he said he is about ready to start identifying candidates and giving them the repetitions needed to make them better.

And the coordinator has gotten some reps, too.

"I think we're going to be able to tweak some of our schemes," Nord said, "and make us better."

Reach John Clay at 859-231-3226 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3226, or jclay@herald-leader.com. Read his blog at Kentucky.com. Follow him on twitter @johnclayiv.

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