Bulls fans seem pretty level-headed about the job in front of Skip Holtz. They know it might take a few years for his coaching tenure to reach its full potential, and they're comfortable with the idea that this season might be a rough one, even though it's for the best in the long term. But if there's one place where Holtz and his special teams coordinator, Vernon Hargreaves, could make an immediate and noticeable improvement, it's on special teams.
There's one phase I will ignore here, and that's place kicking. Between Maikon Bonani and Eric Schwartz, both of whom did reasonably well the last two seasons, I'm sure one of them will be able to give the Bulls what I would consider quality kicking. I'm not someone who expects a college kicker to be automatic. 90% success rates just aren't realistic in college. If the kicker makes 70-75% and doesn't miss any under-30-yard chip shots then I'm happy. USF is pretty much there already, but if Hargreaves can improve on that, then it's gravy.
Nearly everything else, though, can get significantly better than it was last year. As you might know, Football Outsiders is starting to bring their advanced stats to college football, and they've created a stat called Field Position Average. If your team's FPA is .500, it means you and your opponent had exactly equal field position throughout the season. The higher the number, the more field position was tilted in your favor. USF's FPA has gone down each of the last three seasons, from .538 in 2007 all the way down to .443 last season. That 2009 FPA was 114th out of 120 FBS teams, and every team below them finished with a losing record. Granted this stat isn't exclusively about special teams (turnovers affect it too), but your punting and return games are huge factors, and that's an area where the Bulls really struggled in 2009.
The good news? Holtz and Hargreaves just so happen to be very good at this special teams thing. Read on for the details.
Last season USF only averaged 39.8 yards per punt last season, which was 77th in the FBS. Fortunately we've come to the right coach if you wanted to get one who should be able to turn it around. East Carolina finished second in the country last year with a 45.3 yard average, and fourth in net punting at 42.3 yards. In fact, the Pirates finished in the top 20 of both gross and net punting in three of the last four seasons, thanks largely to Matt Dodge. Last year Dodge probably should have been a finalist for the Ray Guy Award as best collegiate punter, with his 45.8 yard average, 24 punts inside the 20, 22 punts of 50 or more yards, and only seven touchbacks. Whether Holtz and Hargreaves get that kind of performance out of one of the punters on the roster, or they find one somewhere else, it looks like that's something the two of them will be intent on taking care of.
Kick and punt returns are another area where there's room for improvement. The Bulls were a dismal 97th in the FBS in kick returns, averaging only 19.7 yards per return. Punt returns weren't much better - they averaged just 6.4 yards, which was 92nd in the FBS. Meanwhile, East Carolina was 31st in kickoff returns (23.4 yards per return) and 34th in punt returns at 11.3 yards per return. The Pirates' punt return average improved each of the last three years, and Hargreaves has proven he can get results in the return game - last year Dwayne Harris ran three kickoffs back for touchdowns, and ECU finished 13th in kick return average in 2007 when some guy named Chris Johnson and his getting-away-from-the-cops speed* was on kickoff return duty. There's certainly no shortage of guys on the USF roster who can fly, so there should be something good to work with here as well.
Lastly, kick and punt return defense. I can't find national rankings, but USF actually did pretty well on kick return defense, allowing 20.5 yards. On the other hand, they were absolutely horrible on punt return defense. It's really hard to give up more yards per punt return than kick return, but somehow the Bulls did it last year with an average of 21.0 yards per punt return. (The good news is that only 11 of USF's 59 punts last year were returned.) East Carolina gave up 20.8 yards per kick return and only 10.7 per punt return last season, and it should be very easy for Hargreaves to improve on the Bulls' punt return number in 2010.
For anyone who cares about the little things in games, watching USF's special teams last year was frightful. They gave away field position way too easily, especially in the return department, and probably made things harder on the offense and defense than necessary. But with a new coaching staff and a proven special teams coordinator in place, there should be some quick improvement here this season.
* - You don't know how long I've been waiting to work that phrase into a post.