The special teams, both his and those of the other team, are certainly on the mind of FIU coach Mario Cristobal as he prepares his squad to travel to play Louisiana-Lafayette on Saturday night.
Making the special-teams matchup even more significant is that this will be FIU’s opening Sun Belt Conference game.
Cristobal’s team has struggled on special teams at times this season, while Louisiana-Lafayette has relied on special teams to win games behind the play of punter/placekicker Brett Baer.
Cristobal is aware of the problems of FIU’s special teams and has taken steps with special-teams coach Jeff Popovich to correct them.
“We’ve done a lot of good things, but we’ve had some critical errors that have hurt us,” Cristobal said of his special teams. “We continue to address those things and work those things in order to find ways to get a higher sense of awareness and urgency. We’re doing everything you can possibly do to continue to improve. We have what we have. Players are working hard, busting their butts to improve on those things. We’ve gotten some results in some phases and not in others.
“We’ll keep working them until we get it right.”
One of the problems is fumbling three punts in four games.
“Certainly, we can’t put the ball on the ground,” Cristobal said. “We’re working the guys on catching the ball under duress. Sometimes, not catching the ball is the right thing to do. That’s what the fair catch is for.
“We’re working a couple of different guys and a couple of the same guys on punt returns, trying to get better,” Cristobal added. “You have to find guys that can do it. There are the guys in daily practice that show that they can do it, but they must get better and show up in the game. It can’t show up in practice day after day and all of a sudden the lights come on and it doesn’t show up.
“We need production and ball security more than anything else.”
One of the improvements in the special teams is punter Josh Brisk, who came back Saturday after sitting out two games. He created an upside with a respectable 44.0-yard average for two kicks. Before Brisk’s return, Jack Griffin was forced into double-duty as placekicker and punter.
His own special teams aren’t the only ones Cristobal has to worry about. Louisiana-Lafayette has one of the most talented kickers in the country in Baer. Cristobal still remembers, and not with a smile, two years ago, when Baer’s punting put FIU in some extremely uncomfortable positions.
“He put three inside the [3-yard line] and two inside the [5-yard line],” Cristobal said.
For Lafayette, that was playing field position. For FIU, it was being put out of position.
“He puts it wherever he wants to,” Cristobal said. “He can sky kick it, he can kick it at an angle, he can directional kick toward the bulk of his coverage. He can throw the ball. They’ve run a multitude of fakes over the past couple of years against everybody in every which way, and none of them have been the same.
“He is a weapon,” Cristobal added. “You don’t want him punting from the 50-yard line. It’s like a pitching wedge in golf. He’ll put the ball right down there. He’s excellent and as good as you will see in the country. You will be seeing him playing on Sundays.”