Florida International U

FIU Panthers’ Ron Turner emphasizes special teams play

Ron Turner’s salary is in the middle of the pack among Conference USA football coaches. Turner didn’t ask FIU for perks beyond the norm with this job. He did tell FIU he would have a coach devoted solely to special teams.

Most of Turner’s peers consider that a rarer luxury than a recruiting plane — only 11 Football Bowl Subdivision programs had such a coach two years ago. Turner considers special teams coordinator Kevin Wolthausen a necessity.

“Everybody says there are three phases to the game, offense, defense and special teams,” Turner said. “But they say, ‘Don’t play your starters on special teams.’ If you don’t put starters on it and don’t have a coach dedicated to it, you’re not following your own words.”

Most colleges have a position coach double as special teams coordinator. Or, split the job — one position assistant or even graduate assistant handles punts and punt returns, another handles kickoffs and returns, another field goals. Last year, defensive backs coach Jeff Popovich also handled special teams after the job shifted from Apollo Wright. Wright coached special teams exclusively his first two years at FIU before being added the running backs coach job.

When Turner was at Illinois, current New Orleans Saints special teams coordinator Greg McMahon handled the special teams and tight ends. Turner complimented the job McMahon did, but still believes double duty gives a coach too much to do.

“I said if ever had a head coaching job in college again, I would do it like the pros do and have a special teams coordinator,” he said.

Turner acting as his own offensive coordinator saves FIU a coaching spot on the NCAA limit of nine. Convenient as that is, Turner said it’s irrelevant to having a special teams coordinator.

Nobody needs to remind him what dynamic special teams can do. Once Chicago drafted return savant Devin Hester out of the University of Miami in 2006, Turner’s job as Bears offensive coordinator got a little easier. Hester provided points and field position, whether returning punts or kickoffs or watching punts or kickoffs directed away from him flutter out of bounds quickly.

So Turner brought in Wolthausen, a defensive line coach at places such as USC, Louisville, Oklahoma and, most recently, Purdue. FIU’s new special teams coach gets to choose among other new elements to FIU’s special teams: replacements for longtime long snapper Mitch McCluggage, kicker Jack Griffin and punter Josh Brisk.

“When you come in and have veteran guys, it might be harder because they can be set in their ways,” Wolthausen said.

Redshirt sophomore Brandon Taylor replaced McCluggage when he was injured for the last five games in 2011. He’s snapping against freshman Sam Medlock, younger brother of FIU starting quarterback Jake Medlock. Redshirt freshman Sergio Sroka is kicking against freshman Austin Taylor, freshman Karson Dietrich and freshman Cody Hodgens. Dietrich and Hodgens have been punting against redshirt freshman Chris Ayers.

“Maybe because he’s used to being here, but Sergio’s been fairly consistent,” Wolthausen said. “But all our kids have got the skill set. I’m glad we have them.”

What coaches want out of special teams is to know that they’ll go off without a hitch.

“Efficiency,” Turner said when asked what he wants from special teams.

“Consistency,” Wolthausen said when asked the same question.

FIU junior Richard Leonard and senior Sam Miller both had dynamic moments on returns last season. Few returning players bettered Leonard’s 29.2 yard kickoff return average. Both also gave up key fumbles that always seemed to lead to opponent points, the antithesis of “efficiency” or “consistency.”

“You put it on the ground, you’re not going to play,” Turner said. “Nothing gets you beat faster than that — turnovers in the kicking game, whether it’s a fumble, a blocked punt, whatever.”