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It’s a part of the game that often goes little noticed by fans, but not by coaches who are searching for ways to win.
Columbus North’s special teams have been a sore point this season as the Bull Dogs seldom have gotten good field position on a kickoff return while other teams seem to be setting up around midfield.
North averages just 15.05 yards per kickoff return and 6.4 yards per punt return. That just doesn’t get it done.
But as the other units have been improving, so have North’s special teams units, which could be a key Friday in the sectional opener at Jeffersonville.
It was subtle, but North took a couple of big special teams steps in last Friday’s upset bid of Southport, which ended with a 28-21 loss.
North junior punter Collin Ebel averaged 48.8 yards on four punts, and that also served as a net because Southport couldn’t manage a return. North averages just 33.39 yards per punt on the season.
Kickoff specialist Andrew Ng, a sophomore who wasn’t even on the varsity roster at the beginning of the season, booted two balls into the end zone against the Cardinals. North has had just four touchbacks all season on 42 kicks.
“That’s huge,” North coach Tim Bless said. “That has been something that has hurt our cause.”
In high school, a kickoff where the ball crosses into the end zone can’t be returned. That forces the opponent to drive 80 yards for a touchdown.
If North’s kick falls short of the end zone, and the receiving team has a speedy return specialist, it puts huge pressure on a Bull Dogs squad lacking in overall team speed.
Class 6A Sectional 8
Friday: New Albany at Center Grove, 7 p.m.
Friday: Columbus North at Jeffersonville, 7 p.m.
Nov. 1: Sectional championship, 7 p.m.
Ng, who was more accustomed to kicking a soccer ball, was having trouble getting the ball to the end zone during his first varsity games. That is starting to change.
“Ng never had kicked a football, and there is a difference in kicking a round ball or that oblong ball,” Bless said. “It’s different.”
While Ng is learning a new craft, Ebel simply appears to be getting stronger as the season progresses.
“We’ve made modest weight room gains,” Bless said. “And it’s also a matter of confidence. The more confident you are, the better you will stroke the ball.”
With the punts higher and the kicks deeper, it gives North’s special teams players a fair chance to make plays.
“As the year has gone along, we’re getting better,” said junior Nick Grady, a backup defensive back whose playing time mostly comes as a part of special teams. “We know that we have to get down the field and make tackles. Special teams is a big part of the game. If we do bad, we lose.
“I want to be first down the field, but you are throwing yourself up against the big guys. Yeah, there are tight ends and fullbacks out there (trying to block), and that’s hard. But any way you can get on the field is fun.
“Special teams give you an opportunity to show what you’ve got.”
The courage and aggressiveness that players like Grady show on special teams is not forgotten.
“Special teams is a real
springboard into position football,” Bless said. “That’s what it is all about, heart and hustle. We find out who is determined to make plays.”
North’s special teams coverage has faltered at times.
“We have had to be selective when we are kicking to people,” Bless said.
However, when North has not chosen to kick the ball deep, the squib kicks usually result in the opponent recovering the ball around the 40-yard line. North’s defense has struggled when it comes to defending short fields.
“Field position football is critical to our success,” Bless said.
Jeffersonville, which hosts Friday’s game beginning at 7 p.m., has lots of speed, so North’s improvement in special teams will be put to the test.
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