Kentucky special teams coach Steve Ortmayer has seen a lot in his 41 years in the coaching business.
He's been in three different college programs, four different NFL organizations and coached the special teams for two Oakland Raiders teams that won Super Bowls.
But Ortmayer probably hasn't experienced many weeks like this.
Ortmayer's unit is under fire after having three kicks blocked in last Saturday's 63-5 debacle at Florida, including its first two punts deep in its own territory that helped put the Cats in a quick 14-0 hole. Those miscues brought UK's tally to eight kicks (four punts, four field goals) blocked in its past 13 games.
UK Coach Rich Brooks said at his weekly teleconference Monday that most of the kicks have been the result of blown assignments, but Ortmayer said it's his duty to get the players in the right place at the right time.
"I'll take the heat," Ortmayer said. "I'm of this philosophy: I don't blame the guy. I blame the guy that hired the guy. That's me. I put the players on the field."
In fairness, UK's special-teams play hasn't been all gloom and doom during Ortmayer's six-year tenure. In 2005, Kentucky was the only team that ranked in the nation's top five in both kickoff and punt returns, and the next year the Cats were the only team that ranked in the nation's top 10 in both.
The problems at Florida, plus the fact that UK had a field goal blocked and returned for a touchdown and also allowed a long kickoff return that set up a score in a loss to South Carolina, have put those past successes in the rearview mirror, however.
"We have a history of having great special teams here, and it's been a couple of rough weeks," Ortmayer said. "It's been a rough couple of weeks in almost every phase of our football team. But we had a really bad experience at Florida."
A typical alignment for a punt features: 1) the punter; 2) nine players on the line of scrimmage, including two "gunners," (players lined up wide in charge of coverage); and 3) the punt protector (the guy lined up behind the center).
Most punt-return teams send eight guys after the punter, and Ortmayer said that each player on both sides of the line is given a number of a player to block, either 1, 2 or 3. The punt protector, A.J. Nance, looks at the alignment and figures out his blocking assignment, which is a 4, and gives the center the assignment on the opposite side of the field, which is also a 4.
Brooks and Ortmayer said that all the players have to do is identify their numerical blocking assignment and take care of that guy.
"We do the same thing from the day we get here in August until the day we leave in January," Ortmayer said. "The same, exact protection scheme. We don't change anything. I can't imagine protection being any simpler than counting to 1-2-3. As a coach, you wonder what can you do?"
Alfonso Smith, a running back who plays the "gunner" position for the punt team, explained the problems this way: "Basically it's one guy messes up and makes everybody else mess up. One guy will think he's supposed to block this guy and he gets picked off, so somebody else tries to pick up his guy and it's just a bunch of confusion. Everybody just needs to focus on what they have to do. If everybody does that, nothing wrong will happen."
Ortmayer said the first blocked punt against Florida was the result of a player letting Gators freshman William Green run right past him.
The second block wasn't quite as simple. He said that he brought freshman Winston Guy in tighter than usual to keep Florida from rushing off the corner, and that Guy's man moved in with him. Guy's man charged hard on the play, and Ortmayer said junior Sam Maxwell got nervous and slid over to try to help Guy. Problem was, UK sets up in a man-to-man protection scheme, and Maxwell's attempt to help Guy let Florida freshman Jeff Demps break through and block Tim Masthay's punt.
Ortmayer said blocked field goals are usually more of a physical issue. He pointed to the infamous blocked field goal in the second overtime of last year's game against Tennessee as a prime example.
"Frankly, one of our players got overmatched (against Tennessee)," he said. "On field goals, it's their guys against our guys. If we stand them off, we win. If the defense beats you, they got a chance to block the kick. The Florida game, the guy coming off the corner was more physical than our guy blocking him, and he reached out and got a hand on it."
Going back to punts, Ortmayer said he'd rather have teams come after the punter because it limits their chances for a big return. He also knows that the Cats will probably see more teams come after Masthay after what happened at Florida.
Ortmayer said the punt team might have to make teams start to pay for their aggressiveness. After the first punt block, Ortmayer said he instructed Masthay to throw it to one of the gunners if the opportunity was there, but Florida covered both players.
"We're working on exact rushes that (Florida) gave us because any time someone gets you with a rush you're subject to see that again down the line," Ortmayer said. "We're also working on things Mississippi State does, and obviously we're going to work with some different people."
Right tackle Justin Jeffries will start Saturday after missing the past four games with a knee injury.
Middle linebacker Micah Johnson (ankle), tight end Maurice Grinter (ankle) and free safety Marcus McClinton (knee) will also play.
Defensive tackle Myron Pryor, who is nursing a high ankle sprain, will make the trip and should be available for duty, but Brooks isn't sure how much he'll be able to play.