Between the early coronation of talented young quarterback Brad Kaaya and the dissection of an oft-maligned defense, one facet of the University of Miami’s football team has been quietly underwhelming.
The Hurricanes’ special teams, except for the punt unit, are in need of a significant pick-me-up.
As Miami prepares to face Georgia Tech on Saturday night at Bobby Dodd Stadium, the UM special teams coach — head coach Al Golden — knows the importance of finding a way to open holes for his kick returners, close holes for the opposition, kick off closer to the goal line, and make those field goals and extra points.
“We’re working on it very hard,” Golden said of UM’s return game, which is ranked 99th (kickoffs) and 81st (punts) in the nation, compared with eighth and 30th at the end of last season. “We have to coach it better, we have to execute it better, we have to give them a little bit more room to run, and then the returners have to hit it.
“I’ve got to make sure that we give all the right guys an opportunity to do it.”
Last season, before he broke his right ankle at Florida State, Duke Johnson was ranked 10th in kickoff returns. This year, he is being held back from the return units.
Stacy Coley, who is struggling as a receiver, returned a punt and kickoff for touchdowns last season. This season, Coley is still trying to find his groove returning both, though Phillip Dorsett agreed that the blocks need to coincide.
Dorsett lost 6 yards on his only punt return and averaged 13.8 yards on his four kickoff returns.
Don’t be surprised if speedster Artie Burns gets his shot this week.
“Guys have just got to win their one-on-one battles,” Dorsett said. “We have a dynamic returner back there in Stacy. We give him a crease, and he’ll take it the distance. Obviously, we pride ourselves in breaking long runs because we’re an explosive team, but in looking at the film … we’ve got to help our returners out.”
UM is also ranked 99th in kick-return defense (but 23rd in punt-return defense). Louisville’s 97-yard kickoff return in the second quarter of the season opener didn’t help.
In the kicking game, Georgia Tech is tied for third nationally with three blocked kicks — an extra point, field goal and punt.
Chris Milton, who already blocked an extra point and field goal this season, had a nation’s-best three blocked punts in 2013.
UM freshman kicker Mike Badgley, forced into action the past three games because of an injury to starter Matt Goudis, had a low extra point blocked against Duke and has missed another.
He has made field goals of 34 and 29 yards and missed a 52-yard attempt Saturday. He also has been kicking off but needs to get his kickoffs deeper and was battling with punter Justin Vogel to keep that job.
“I expect him to kick it through the uprights, and I expect him to kick it to the goal line on kickoff,” Golden said of Badgley, a walk-on from Summit, New Jersey. “He is making progress. He’s got an explosive leg. Unfortunately, he missed the one the other night, but that thing was good from 60. I mean, he bombed it.
“We’ve got to continue to work on his finite focus, picking a spot, blocking everything else out, and then let him relax a little bit on kickoffs. He’s thinking a little too much, maybe about placement. But he’s got a real live leg and he’s got confidence — not arrogance.
“He’s not afraid to do it. So Jersey Mike, he’s going to be all right.”
The bright spot of Miami’s special teams has been punter Vogel, a walk-on Gators transfer. UM is 10th nationally in net punting, and Vogel is 26th in punting, averaging 44.2 yards per punt. He was named Atlantic Coast Conference Co-Specialist of the Week on Monday after averaging 43.4 yards on eight punts, dropping three of them inside the 20-yard line and tying a season’s best with a 56-yarder.
“He’s very poised,” Golden said. “It hasn’t all been perfect, but he’s always answered. He’s given us a little mental toughness that maybe I didn’t know about him in the beginning.”