Standing near midfield, Marty Biagi had to bend down and tighten up his shoe laces.
It was on.
Following Wednesday’s practice, Southern’s special teams coach was locked in a battle with one of his pupils, punter Chase Tuten. There were ups and downs for both, but Biagi, himself a college punter at Marshall, wasn’t about to just roll over.
He unleashed a high, sailing, near-perfect spiral that dropped just inside the 10-yard line and bounced out of bounds.
“Ooh, that’s a pretty ball,” linebacker Javon Allen said.
A late hire from Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Biagi has been working with his players for less than a month, but the fresh-faced 26-year-old has had an immediate impact.
After learning the personnel he had to work with, his first task was establishing discipline on special teams and making sure his players recognized it as being just as important as offense or defense — a unit to match the ones he helped John L. Smith forge while he was a graduate assistant at Arkansas.
Thanks to his hands-on approach and enthusiasm, that’s beginning to happen.
“More than anything, they’ve made it special as a third phase of the game,” Biagi said. “They see me flying around and believing in what they came up with, so that gives them a reason to want to buy into it.”
What they came up with was a new name for Southern’s special teams. When SU comes out for a kickoff or punt block, the players on the field are no longer the Jaguars.
Behold the Body Snatchaz.
“(Ending in) ‘-az,’ ” Biagi said. “I thought it was ‘-ers’ and they corrected me.”
Biagi was quick to go with the flow.
After all, they’ve adopted his sayings too.
He wears a wristband with two mottos — “Tap The Hat” and “Turn It Up” — and its green color is a reference to a stop light and his focus on playing fast.
The first slogan is for defensive special teams plays like kickoffs or punts, when Biagi wants all the players on the field to swarm to the ball and tap the helmet of the teammate who made the play. The second is for returns, when he wants to see the Jaguars bring excitement.
Southern has fallen in line. The team is bugging Biagi for wristbands, and the phrases have caught on to the point where players recite them around campus.
“We want to create an electrifying atmosphere one way or another, on a big punt or a big punt block,” Biagi said.
But for his biggest impact, look no further than the red-jersey-wearing understudies who flanked him during Wednesday’s impromptu punting contest: Tuten and kickers Matthew Hill and Gregory Pittman.
Kicking was a constant issue for Southern last season, when the Jaguars went 5-for-10 on field goals, missed seven extra points and had a net punting average of just 31.4 yards.
Biagi saw SU’s worst kicking output first hand, when the Jaguars missed an extra point and had another blocked as time expired to lose 22-21 to UAPB.
Fixing those issues meant taking his players’ mechanics and re-working them from the ground up, something Hill said hadn’t been done as much in the past.
With Hill and Pittman, Biagi is tweaking their motions and telling them to keep their heads down and trust that sound fundamentals will guide the ball where it needs to go.
“He shaved everything down,” Hill said. “My hips don’t fly through. I’m more accurate now. He told me I don’t have to worry about power because I have plenty of that. He’s just breaking everything down for me to make it easy.”
In one drill, Biagi lines his kicker up to the side of the goal post so he’s kicking sideways across the field, then has him aim for the upright to work on accuracy. He also sets them
up for angled kicks and puts them through workouts and stretching drills to increase flexibility.
That approach has made a difference for Tuten as well.
Biagi said his freshman punter — the son of former NFL punter Rick Tuten — has plenty of talent to honor the family name, but he needed fine-tuning.
He had Tuten shorten his steps before punting, which leads to higher kicks and more hang time. Other alterations included, well, just about everything.
“He changed the way I catch the ball, changed the way I drop the ball to my hip, changed my hip placement of the ball, made me stop flipping the ball when it’s high — pretty much just started from scratch when I got here,” Tuten said.
“I’m like a cake that you make,” he added, deadpanning. “It starts off with all the ingredients and you see them, but when you put them all together, it looks beautiful in the end. Coach is like the cook. Southern is the oven.”
Chef Biagi hasn’t had much time to prepare his special teams cake, but if the Jaguars follow his recipe, it should come out just right.