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Hoosiers hope to clean up special teams

IU’s special teams play has been uneven during the Tom Allen era. This year, the Hoosiers hope to change that.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: JAN 02 Taxslayer Gator Bowl - Indiana v Tennessee Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

As one of his first acts this spring as Indiana’s new special teams coordinator, Kasey Teegardin stood in front of the entire team and let his numbers do the talking.

Teegardin went through each of IU’s contests from the 2019 season and added all of the special teams plays, engaging Indiana players in an exercise meant to illustrate the importance of the third facet of the game. Teegardin’s math produced an average of 32 special teams snaps per game last fall, a figure that — true to the adage — equaled roughly one-third of an entire game.

“I wanted everyone to understand, quarterbacks included, how important special teams is in terms of field position,” Teegardin said.

It was a reminder the Hoosiers could use. Across Tom Allen’s first three seasons as head coach, Indiana’s special teams performance has been a mixed bag of big returns, botched assignments and head-scratching decisions. Now it’s up to Teegardin to straighten out a unit that played a part in torpedoing IU’s hopes for one or two additional wins during the program’s otherwise heartening 2019 campaign.

“What we’re doing on special teams is going to impact the entire team,” Teegardin said. “That’s been my biggest challenge to the team in general. (I’m) just trying to motivate those guys to get them to understand the bigger picture.”

It’s a timely topic for Indiana to cover, as the lasting snapshot of IU’s one-point Gator Bowl loss to Tennessee on Jan. 2 was, of course, a special teams blunder. Down six with four minutes remaining, the Volunteers caught Indiana flat footed when they recovered an onside kick. Tennessee then used the jolt to score the game’s decisive touchdown. But the onside disaster wasn’t merely IU’s only mistake against Tennessee. A missed extra point in the third quarter turned out to be an equally-critical gaffe.

Indiana’s special teams shortcomings in the Gator Bowl came less than two months after another series of mistakes contributed to a 34-27 loss at No. 9 Penn State on Nov. 16. A muffed punt followed by a brutal miscommunication on a fake punt (that came after a timeout!) led to 14 points for the Nittany Lions.

Consider it all part of a losing special teams equation Teegardin hopes to fix.

“I did a study,” said Teegardin, who is sliding into his new role after leading IU’s safeties the past two seasons. “In 2019, if we won the field position battle, we were 6-0 and I put these numbers up in front of the whole team. When we lost the field position battle, we were 2-5. In 2018, when we won the field position battle, we were 3-1. When we lost the battle, we were 1-4. If you add that up when you win the field position battle, we’re 9-1 overall. To me that has a direct correlation to special teams, because if you look at the games that we’ve lost, losing the field position battle it has been Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan. So how do we take the next step and beat those teams? You’ve got to do it with great special teams play, pin the ball deep when you need to, (change) the field, (break) big returns (and) get the ball to midfield to start the offense.”

On the eve of Indiana’s first practice of the spring, Allen announced that he, too, will spend extra time ironing through the kinks in IU’s special teams play this season. Since his promotion to head coach in 2016, Allen, a former special teams coordinator at Ole Miss and Wabash College, has spoken at length about how much he values strong special teams play. However, the Hoosiers’ play in that realm hasn’t always aligned with expectations. At times, it’s fallen far short.

Now, he and Teegardin will tag team Indiana’s efforts to strengthen one of the Hoosiers’ weaker links.

“I’m not going to be making wholesale changes,” Teegardin said, “but definitely some improvements in my and Coach Allen’s opinion. We talked about how we can make this better. … We’ve got a lot of experience. We’re more athletic, in my opinion, than we’ve ever been, so we’ve got to utilize that. But just some wrinkles. I’m going to leave it at that. I think teams will have to really study us.”