UK special teams: All Cats on board with 'special forces'

jsmith3@herald-leader.comAugust 24, 2012 

Kentucky's Craig McIntosh kicked the third field goal in the third quarter of the Mississippi State at Kentucky football game at Commonwealth Stadium in Lexington, Ky., on Oct. 29, 2011. Photo by Pablo Alcala | Staff

PABLO ALCALA | STAFF

  • Scouting the special teams

    The main man: The Cats' veteran in this group is two-year starting place-kicker Craig McIntosh from Lexington Christian. He joined the team as a sophomore after hearing that UK was looking for a kickoff specialist. Now he's one of the leaders.

    The supporting cast: Joe Mansour has handled kickoffs for the past two seasons and is battling for the starting punter job. The Cats are testing a variety of players at the return positions, most notably wide receiver Demarco Robinson on punts and running back Raymond Sanders on kickoffs.

    Newcomer to watch: Landon Foster, a 6-foot-1 true freshman, is probably the Cats' starting punter. As a senior in Franklin, Tenn., he averaged 41.3 yards a punt.

    Outlook: UK's coaches want to see more productivity and firepower from this group, especially in the return game. With an average of 1.8 yards per return, UK's punt returning was the second-worst in the nation. Ryan Tydlacka was one of the more productive punters in the Southeastern Conference last year and Foster will have big shoes to fill.

  • This is the final story in a series analyzing the UK football team position by position. Read the other installments on Kentucky.com.

Kentucky's core group of running backs went to special teams coach Greg Nord this summer and offered to enlist.

Raymond Sanders, CoShik Williams and Jonathan George wanted to join what head coach Joker Phillips calls UK's "special forces" this season.

The trio wanted to be part of the reason Kentucky could experience many happy returns. They've encouraged players on every unit to invest in special teams.

"This is a vital part of the game," Sanders said. "We're more than offense and defense. Games can be won on special teams and we need to remember that.

"We're just trying to push each other and make sure everyone's excited about being on (the special) teams."

Special teams didn't do much to help a struggling Kentucky offense last season, especially on punt returns. UK averaged just 1.8 yards a return, second-worst in the nation and worst in the Southeastern Conference by 4.5 yards.

The Cats were second to last in the league in kickoff returns, averaging 20.3 yards. Neither return group was able to produce points last season.

It was a source of continual frustration, not just for the coaches, but also for the players.

Phillips was excited to see some of the team's stars make it cool to be on special teams.

"You seldom see starting backs with that type of attitude," Phillips said. "That will rub off on those young guys. That's the kind of attitude we have to have not just at that position but every position."

Although depth charts aren't available yet, it's likely that Sanders and Williams will see significant action on kickoff returns, coupled with some other players.

Speedy sophomore receiver Demarco Robinson will be a primary punt returner and has Nord smiling again when he discusses UK's return game.

"I'll be shocked if everyone isn't happy to see Demarco Robinson back there," Nord said of the receiver who returned two kicks for touchdowns his senior year of high school. "I know he's made me happy in camp. I hope he continues to do so the rest of the season."

Phillips shares Nord's optimism.

"We've got better returners, a more confident returner in Demarco Robinson," the coach said. "I feel good about our special forces."

Getting something special from his special teams unit this year would be big, Phillips said.

"It would be huge," he said. "It ignites your team when you can get a big play in the special forces."

McIntosh a leader

With new returners and a new punter, there are a lot of questions about the Cats' special teams.

But there's no doubt about UK's place-kicking with Craig McIntosh available. The former Lexington Christian player has made 79.3 percent of his career field goals and all but two of his 56 extra-point attempts.

UK was No. 2 in the SEC in field goals last season, connecting on 85.7 percent of them. McIntosh led the team in scoring last season with 56 points.

"He's really consistent," Phillips said. "He's one of those guys you don't worry about."

McIntosh's career long is 50 yards, but Phillips said he feels confident that when the senior says he can go for 55 yards, that he can.

"That's a good comfortable place," McIntosh said Friday. "If there's good conditions or weather, I may be a little shorter or a little longer, but I'm confident I'm going to be accurate and have good distance from all those areas."

McIntosh, who has aspirations of kicking in the NFL, also wants to challenge Joe Mansour for kickoff duties. It might happen because of the new kickoff rules that could make sky kicks a valuable option to pin opponents inside the 25-yard-line.

"He may have a long ball that is a touchback more often, but I feel like I have good placement of the ball and hang time," he said. "If that's what they want to use, then I feel like I can contribute like that."

Freshman punter

Phillips hasn't confirmed, but certainly has implied, that true freshman Landon Foster will handle punting for Kentucky, with Mansour as his backup.

Freshmen aren't allowed to speak to the media until they play in a game, but at Media Day, Foster seemed hopeful that he could contribute right away.

Foster said he was trying to block out outside pressures and expectations.

"I've never really been expected to do anything, so I'm feeling it a little bit," he said. "But punting is punting. Coach Nord is like, 'Just come in and do what you did. We got you for a reason.' So that's nice to know."

Jennifer Smith: (859) 231-3241. Twitter: @jenheraldleader. Blog: ukfootball.bloginky.com

Lexington Herald-Leader is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service