On his way out of the A.W. Mumford Field House after Tuesday’s practice, Southern defensive tackle Benay Pryer stopped special teams coach Marty Biagi.
Wearing a green wristband that displayed Biagi’s slogans — “Tap the Hat” and “Turn It Up” — Pryer just wanted to talk about a special teams block he was particularly proud of from the New Mexico game a few days earlier, and ask a question about whether he blocked the right man on another play.
Those wristbands, which remind players to swarm to the ball on punts and kickoffs, then look for big plays on returns, are a common sight now that Biagi has passed them out to the team.
Southern is taking pride in its special teams, which made last weekend’s loss to the Lobos even more painful.
As far as debut performances go, it certainly could have been better.
In the first quarter, after nailing a 48-yarder on his first attempt, Southern punter Chase Tuten had a chance to pin New Mexico deep in its territory with a punt from near midfield. Instead, he misfired for 14 yards, and the Lobos stormed down the field for a 14-0 lead.
After Southern punched in its first touchdown in the second quarter, kicker Greg Pittman missed the extra point. And worst of all, the Jaguars gave up a momentum-draining 98-yard touchdown return on the ensuing kickoff.
“You saw those guys stand up after that play, take pride and say, ‘That can’t happen again,’” Biagi said.
“After the game they were saying, ‘That’s not what we’re about. That’s not our identity.’ These guys understand that it’s not acceptable.”
The problem on that play — where UNM’s Chase Clayton cut over to the right side of the field and found more than 50 yards of open space en route to the end zone — was that two players couldn’t shed their blocks, and the Jaguars didn’t fold in the edges to contain the returner.
That turned a ho-hum play into a game-breaker, and SU went through the reverse scenario when Biagi said a player falling down on a double-team block cost Charles Hawkins a big return, and a failure to block the New Mexico kicker held Jaleel Richardson to a 59-yard return instead of a touchdown.
“Normally if you can get 10 guys to do the right thing on a play and one (misses an assignment), it’s not an exciting play,” Biagi said.
“When you can get 11 to do what they’re supposed to do, it turns into a big play for us. We’re only one or two players away, and that’s what we’re out here working on.”
The theme of tightening up has been the same for special teams as for the rest of Southern’s units this week, but there were some positives to build on.
Richardson’s long return was very promising from a player who entered the season as the third option at best, Tuten’s 48-yarder and zero return yardage were good signs.
And Pittman came back to hit an extra long extra point (because of a penalty) after his miss.
“I think he knows he has to work on his technique time and time again until we get perfection,” Biagi said of Pittman. “It was his first kick in a live atmosphere and in a comfort zone he probably isn’t used to. So as you could see: The next kick, he put it through.”
Some struggles were to be expected with freshmen at kicker and punter, and all in all, Biagi and the rest of his wristband-wearing special teamers will be looking for a much improved effort against Mississippi Valley State on Thursday.
“My goal each week is to be able to outdo the opponent’s special teams,” Biagi said. “I didn’t get that done, so I have to get back in there, get on the drawing board and figure out any personnel that I need to change. I’m already getting ready for Valley so that won’t happen again. We’re expecting a big difference.”