By Joe Scalzo
Youngstown State special teams coach Jamie Bryant is a no-nonsense guy from Fredericktown, Ohio, but with his half-growl/half-drawl delivery, he could just as easily be from Texas.
He likes doing interviews about as much as he likes missed assignments — “I don’t talk a whole lot,” he says — which is a shame, since this is the first time in Eric Wolford’s tenure that YSU’s special teams are worth talking about.
“I’ll be honest,” he said after Thursday’s practice. “I don’t know what happened around here in the past. I didn’t go back and watch the tape. It’s none of my business.”
In 2010, you could have made a pretty scary Halloween movie just from film of YSU’s coverage teams — poor kickoff coverage probably cost the Penguins at least two wins — and things didn’t get much better in 2011 or 2012. After special teams coach Louis Matsakis left in the offseason to become Kansas’ director of player personnel, Wolford hired Bryant in hopes of fixing YSU’s woes.
So far, so good. YSU has improved in almost every area of special teams from last year, from kickoff yards (64.5-59.6) to net punting average (36.3-33.0) to the opposing team’s kick return (18.9-21.3) and punt return average (14.3-17.3).
The only category that’s worse in net kickoff average (47.7-49.4), but that’s skewed since Nick Liste has already crushed his previous-high for touchbacks (29 in eight games this season, compared to 18 in 11 games last season).
“It all starts with the head coach,” Bryant said. “He’s made it an emphasis for this football team to get better on special teams. And then it goes to the seniors. They’ve seen what’s happened around here in the past.”
Added Liste: “Coach Bryant, he’s really focused on attention to detail, starting from the basics — your first step to shedding blocks to getting into your coverage lane. I think that’s where we were hurting in the past, the very basic fundamentals.”
It doesn’t hurt that Liste is having a career year, leading the Missouri Valley in punting average (44.3) even though the next two punters on that list play in domes. One-third of his 36 punts have pinned teams inside the 20. The Niles High graduate has already tied a school record with four conference player of the week awards.
“When you have somebody who can punt like Nick can and kick like Nick can, it makes life a lot easier,” Bryant said.
After a so-so junior year (by his standards), Liste took a shorter break in the offseason and focused more on training for leg speed than strength. New kicker Joey Cejudo also taught him an end-over-end technique that allows him to pin punts inside the other team’s 20.
Cejudo is more than just a good teacher, though. A junior college transfer from California, he’s been perfect on extra points (42 of 42) and field goals (5 of 5, with a long of 40 yards).
Those five attempts are just two fewer than YSU tried last year with David Brown (who was 6 of 7).
“I’m OK with not kicking a lot of field goals,” Cejudo said. “I came from a high school that didn’t kick a lot of field goals. I think I was 5 for 5 in high school, so I played for the same kind of coach where if it’s fourth-and-7, you go for it.
“Like he [Wolford] says, six is better than three. I’ll go in and get us 7 and I’m OK with that.”
Cejudo’s high school teammate, Nathan Gibbs, doesn’t get a lot of attention (aside from starring in commercials for the Jambar, YSU’s student newspaper) but he’s been perfect all season, as has holder Dante Nania, who also completed a two-point conversion pass on his only attempt this year.
“When the head coach emphasises special teams and a bunch of seniors and other players buy in, it’s pretty easy to coach them,” Bryant said. “Knock on wood, we haven’t had a lot of bad things happen, but we’re only going to be as good as the next rep.”