What a difference a year makes. For Marshall football special teams unit--notably the kicker and punter--the change from 2012 to 2013 was mind blowing, especially on kickoffs.
In 2012, Justin Haig served as the Herd's kickoff man and place kicker for much of the season in which only four of his 63 kickoffs resulted in a touchback while averaging 57.3 yards per kick. Haig also went 13-of-16 on field goal attempts with his longest coming from 45 yards in a 44-41 win over Houston.
The biggest problem with Haig pulling double-duty was the fatigue his body was enduring. As Haig's kickoff distances began to dwindle, Marshall turned the kickoff duties over to Trent Martin. However, with Martin's distances shorter than that of an ailing Haig, Martin's duty was short lived and Haig's double-duties were reinstated.
However, in 2013 the Herd found a diamond in the rough in the form of true freshman kicker out of Tampa, Florida that was just what the "Doc" ordered. It was Amoreto Curraj. Curraj quickly worked himself into a starting role for the Herd as its kickoff man allowing Haig to focus solely on field goals and PATS. It took little time for Curraj's impact to be felt.
Curraj booted six of his eight kicks through the end zone in the Herd's 2013 home opener against Miami-Ohio in a kicking display that lasted all year with a booming averaging of 63.5 yards per kick.That was nearly a six yard gain per kickoff from Haig's 56.4 yards per kick average in 2012. Of Curraj's 97 kickoffs last season, 52 were touchbacks (53.6 percent), forcing the Herd's opponents to start at their own 25 yard line.
With Curraj securing the kickoff job, that allowed Haig to focus on one task at hand, place kicking. Last season the red-shirt senior from Delray Beach, Florida finished 11-of-16 on field goal attempts with three of his misses being blocked. Haig's biggest nemesis last season, kicks between 30 and 39-yards, where four of his five misfires came from--including a 39-yard game-winning attempt in the first overtime at Virginia Tech was blocked by the Hokies defense.
However, Haig booted the biggest kick of his career three weeks later--a 41-yard game-winner in his home state over FAU that secured the Herd's unblemished CUSA record. Headed into the 2014 season, Haig is concerned about one thing for his senior season, being consistent.
"My goal for this season is just to become more consistent," said Haig. "That's the key for a kicker. Its a lot like golf in which on a made field goal you know as soon as you kick the ball that you hit it right. Whether its a make or a miss, a kicker has to know what he did, right or wrong, and make the adjustments the next time out."
The third head, or leg if you will, of the Herd's kicking dragon is Tyler Williams who finds himself on the Ray Guy Award watch list to begin the season. The junior punter has turned in back-to-back seasons averaging over 40 yards per punt with 45.2 yards in 2012 and 42.4 in 2013. Williams sent 13 of his 43 punts (30.2 percent) over 50 yards including his career long of 66 yards in 2012 and 13-of-56 (23.2 percent) with a long of 65 yards in 2013.
"Tyler has been kicking the ball extremely well in camp," head coach Doc Holliday said. "When you are playing to win, you have to have great special teams. That was the reason we won the bowl game last year. It wasn't because we played good defense or moved the ball well on offense but it was how well he (Williams) punted the ball."
"He changed the field position nearly every time he punted the ball and to make Maryland have to do that every time they got the ball, its tough to do for any offense," Holliday added.
Throughout the first week of camp, Williams has shown signs of bettering his 2012 numbers by sending several punts from his own 20 yard line to the opposite 20. Nevertheless, after booting a 75 yard punt in practice Tuesday, Williams was more upset about the amount of hang time on the punt rather than pleased with the booming kick.
"I would've given up 20 yards on that kick to have a couple more seconds of hang time," Williams said of the towering punt. "It's all about good preparation. It doesn't matter if I kick 10 or 100 balls, my preparation is still the same. I work on the little things that most people never think about but I know those are what I have to better myself at to become a better player."
Williams got the desired result Wednesday after he drilled a 78 yard punt with nearly 7 seconds of hang time.
"Its critical that all the phases of special teams perform and we should be better this year than we were last," Holliday added.