By Cody Stark
Huntsville Item Assistant Sports Editor
HUNTSVILLE - With a lot of uncertainty surrounding Sam Houston State's offense heading into preseason camp, it's a good thing new head coach Willie Fritz is a man who puts a lot of emphasis on special teams.
It's also a good thing the Bearkats appear to have a pair of solid players handling the kicking duties this fall. As the offense works out the kinks that come with learning a new system, place kicker Miguel Antonio and punter Matt Foster will need to do all they can to help take the pressure off both sides of the ball.
Antonio, a sophomore from Lovelady, has a booming leg and has shown that he is capable hitting field goals from 40-plus yards out and sending kickoffs deep down field. Foster, a transfer from Purdue by way of Melbourne, Australia, can punt a ball a mile high and a long way, which should benefit the defense when it comes to opposing team's field position.
"The kicking game is one of the most important areas of the game," Fritz said Friday afternoon. "We call it the magic 22-yard line. Anytime you get to the 22, we are at least thinking we have three points if you don't get moved back. That makes it a 39-yard field goal or less and with Miguel's leg and a good snap, we should make that 99 times out of 100.
"We also tell our guys that a punt is the first play of defense, a kickoff is the first play of defense. A kickoff return is the first play of offense. I'm kind of a stat freak in some areas and I have done a chart the last 17 years I have been a head coach that if we have one yard of starting field position better than our opponent, we win 91 percent of our games. That involves offense and defense, but the majority of it involves the kicking game."
Antonio had a pretty solid year as a true freshman last season, leading the Bearkats in scoring with 73 points. He connected on 12-of-20 field goals attempts, with a long of 48 yards, and was 37-of-38 on point after attempts. He also helped Sam Houston improve on opponent's field position by showing a strong leg on kickoffs, something that was a problem in 2008.
Antonio has had some struggles in preseason camp, but a lot of that has been because the team is still trying to break in a deep snapper.
A pair of true freshmen, Drew Johnson from Denton Guyer and Ken Jones of Klein Collins, have been battling it out in camp for the starting deep snapper job.
"We have two true freshmen deep snapping for us and it started off well," Fritz said. "Things are a little different for them because they aren't playing another position now and all they are doing is deep snapping. Sometimes you almost get overkill when you do that. But they need to have a great year for us to be successful in the kicking game."
During Thursday's final intrasquad scrimmage, several bad snaps and busted protection led to Antonio going 2-for-6 on field goal attempts with two blocks. He did connect from 40 yards out with a clean snap and hold, though.
"We have some new snappers coming in, so we have to get used to the snap and work as a unit," Antonio said Friday. "We have had some problems, but once we get it down as a team we will be fine."
Foster has been one of the biggest surprises in camp since showing up the first week of August. His leg has created a buzz with punts soaring through the air with four-plus second hang times, but the only problem is that Foster has never punted in a real game.
He grew up playing Australian Rules Football (rugby) before he decided to give punting a shot. He sent out tapes and landed at Purdue, then found his way to Sam Houston State.
So when the Bearkats take the field against Baylor on Saturday, Foster will get his first taste of American football.
"I played Australian football, which is our main sport. It is similar to soccer but we pass the ball by punting and the ideas is to kick goals," Foster said Friday. "Most of what I used in punting is what I learned in AFL football, the directional kicks and kicking it far. I tried to kick long goals. That was my job on the team."
Putting the block back in party
When Fritz was an assistant coach at Sam Houston State in the early 1990s, he started a special teams tradition known as the "Block Party," which was a Bearkat staple for more than a decade. From 1991 to 2004, SHSU special teams blocked 80 punts, field goals and extra points.
With Fritz now running the show, the Bearkats are bringing the "Block Party" back. It has shown in preseason camp as there have been several blocked field goals, including two in the final intrasquad scrimmage Thursday.
"We are going to be aggressive in the kicking game," Fritz said. "We really work like crazy defensively on extra point and field goal block. We tell our kids that is a scoring opportunity for us. The guys have gotten a few now, and the big thing is brainwashing the guys to go hard. It isn't the scheme, it's the effort. A lot of guys take that play off and our guys are going a great job giving us great effort on that.
"Blocking punts is harder than it used to be. Teams are putting in a lot more time working on protecting the punts. But if you can get a few punt blocks, it steamrolls and you make more and more plays."
Return and coverage
Thursday night, the Bearkats for the first time went live on kickoff returns and coverage. It is hard to judge where Sam Houston State stands in those two areas because the return and coverage teams were going against scout teams.
But, in the return game, redshirt freshman wide receiver Torrance Williams did have a solid kick return that went for around 40 yards when the blocking up the middle broke down and he kicked it to the outside and picked up big chunks of yardage.
The Bearkats do return senior wide receiver Brandon Closner, who is sure-handed and did return 10 punts last season for an average of 10.6 yards.
Sam Houston also signed wide receiver Chad Froechtenicht, who shined as a punt returner last season for Blinn. He had two touchdown returns last season of 60 and 84 yards, the latter of which provided the Buccaneers with the winning points in the NCJAA national championship game.
"We have to find some guys with some juice that can do some things in the return game," Fritz said. "Brandon Closner there in the punt return game, I like the fact that he is going to catch all the balls. That's a big deal because that is the first play of offense. I have told our guys that our objective after a kick return or a punt return is to either have our offense or extra point team come onto the field.
"Chad Froechtenicht, who I think is an excellent punt and kick returner, has been hurt the last week and hopefully we will get him healthy. He has proven, at least, at the junior college level that he is an excellent returner. Torrance Williams also had a nice return last night. We just need to find guys with explosiveness."
The Bearkats should be sound on kick coverage with talented defensive players like linebackers Kash David and Will Henry, safeties Kenneth Jenkins and Darnell Taylor and others with playmaking abilities. Fritz would just like for others to step up and earn some playing time to give those guys a rest.
"We think we ought to be good on kick coverage," Fritz added. "The problem you run into is we have to develop more depth. You can't have Will Henry playing every snap on defense and all phases of the kicking game - Darnell Taylor, Kenneth Jenkins and those kind of guys. We have to develop more depth.
"These guys are still learning my system in the kicking game. Miguel was hurt in the summer and we didn't have a punter or a snapper. But we are going to get better and better and hopefully it will pay dividends for us early in the season, but I know it will in the middle of the season."
Sam Houston will open the season Saturday Sept. 4 at Baylor. Tickets for the game against Baylor can be purchased through the Sam Houston State athletic ticket office by calling 936-294-1729 or by going on the web at www.gobearkats.com/tickets.
Sam Houston opens its home schedule on Saturday Sept. 25 with Bearkat Family Weekend against Gardner-Webb. Special events during the evening include an appearance by the Houston Texans cheerleaders, a salute to Hillcrest Heroes honoring local police and fire-fighters, a huge pregame tailgate and a postgame fireworks display.
Season tickets for Bearkat football at Bowers Stadium are available through the new exciting "2-2-2" offer, order your tickets now by going to the Bearkat tickets page on www.gobearkats.com or call (936) 294-1729.
The "2-2-2" offer also includes two corner tickets to the "Battle of the Piney Woods" game with Stephen F. Austin at Reliant Stadium in Houston on October 23.
Fans also may visit the Sam Houston athletic ticket office located in the Ron Mafrige Field House located in the south end zone of Bowers Stadium. Ticket office hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.