March 12, 2018
DENTON -- Replacing two of the best to ever play their positions at North Texas in a two-year span is not easy to overcome, but special teams coordinator Marty Biagi is trying to do just that.
When Biagi joined head coach Seth Littrell's staff, he was tasked with replacing punter Eric Keena, who graduated after leaving his name all over the North Texas record books. Biagi figured it out. Walk-on Blake Patterson rose to the occasion as a redshirt freshman and helped North Texas perform well in the field-position game.
Now, as spring practice is already past the midway point, Biagi needs to find someone to fill the void left by kicker Trevor Moore, who owns nearly every Mean Green kicking record. No big deal, right?
"I think the best part about coming off a guy like Trevor is that there is a benchmark standard that is set, as opposed to being somewhere where there have been struggles or recent troubles," Biagi said. "The great advantage for our guys is that they got a first-hand visual of seeing somebody perform in the clutch consistently and saw his work-ethic and practice habits, so now it's easy for me to bring that same mindset over to them. I don't need them to try and be Trevor, I need them to be what Trevor's standard is, because that's our standard, but now we have to do what fits you to get there."
Several players have vied in the early going to take control of the kicking job, but two have stood out thus far: Arkansas graduate transfer Cole Hedlund and redshirt junior Alvin Kenworthy.
"Coach Littrell is very big on stopping scrimmages to make sure we get to kick, to put them under pressure," Biagi said. "In practice, we try to create game-like scenarios through the whole process for those guys. You can't just go out there and kick 10 in a row, you've got to make them feel the ice in their veins, and make them feel like they're only getting one rep. It's probably the hardest game scenario to create, whether it's a game-winning field goal, or we just really need those three points."
Hedlund, the son of Mean Green soccer coach John Hedlund, was a record-setting kicker at nearby Argyle High School. Recruited by Arkansas, he had early success with the Razorbacks before struggles in 2017 led him home.
Kenworthy opened 2017 as the North Texas punter prior to Patterson coming on strong to win the job. The pair are coming off quality performances during practice last Friday, the final practice ahead of spring break. Both made kicks from 50 yards in the scrimmage and both converted at a high percentage throughout the day, including Hedlund's 9 of 10 showing.
Biagi oversaw the transition from a departing record-setting special-teams player a year ago. Keena left Denton with a career average of 44.2 yards per punt, which was in the top five nationally among active punters at the FBS level, and Biagi is very pleased with Patterson filling that role.
Patterson walked onto the team as a kicker/wide receiver before Biagi suggested he try his fortune at punting ahead of 2017. Midway through last season he seized the job and hasn't looked back. He finished by averaging 41.1 yards per attempt, which was one of the steadiest in Conference USA.
"He's a relentless worker, and the great part is he's a golfer," Biagi said. "A lot of kicking and punting is very similar to the golfing mentality and even uses some of the same techniques. He works really hard at his craft. I think it caught him off guard when I said I want you to try punting, but he took to it with open arms and he really wants to be coached. He's done a great job embracing every single thing."
Biagi lauds Patterson for the time he spends watching film and his attention to detail. That is something the coach says has quickly reminded him of Moore.
"He's super coachable and is really good at doing the little things to perfect his technique that maybe everyone wouldn't notice," Biagi continued. "That makes the difference between a 3.8 second hang time and a 4.4 second hang time, or a 35-yard punt and a 44-yard punt. A lot of people think of field goal kickers only having pressure situations, but punting is just as, if not more, pressure filled because you have to be able to flip the field when we need you to, or be able to pin them deep."
Biagi is happy for the players that overlapped with Moore and now Patterson because they had the opportunity to see that determination. It's not just the mental or physical aspect going in to what transpires on Saturdays. It's making sure to take care of academic responsibilities, getting the right amount of rest and also being a better member of the community.
Making sure newcomers are aware of the system within special teams is key as it pertains to the new standard that has been set by Moore, Patterson and others across all segments of special teams.
While there has been significant turnover at the most visible special-teams positions, the Mean Green return a strong core in other areas, including long snapper, holder and coverage and block teams.
Sophomore Nate Durham missed the majority of his freshman season due to injury but has returned this spring. North Texas was forced to use three deep snappers a year ago due to Durham's absence, but those not focused on the position may not have noticed because Moore and Patterson handled the changes without skipping a beat.
"Not everyone understands that it's probably the hardest position to see success, because you're not really looking for it," Biagi said of long snapping. "The snap directly affects the punter's success rate more than anything. If he's having to move around, that really slows the production down of the whole punt unit if he doesn't know what's coming, much like a hitter in baseball not knowing what pitch to expect.
"It's kind of the same thing on a field goal as well, because the timing has to be so consistent. If all of a sudden he can't leave on his approach step with confidence, you start to see a jab or a stutter step, which throws everything off."
With Durham and holder Quinn Shanbour back in the fold, Biagi is pleased with what he calls his battery. With Patterson expected to continue to grow and succeed at punter, the question at kicker remains. Biagi doesn't believe anything will be settled at that position in spring, but has already seen positive growth from Hedlund and Kenworthy through the first nine practices.
"I've done it multiple places where it has been by committee, whether it's short or long or accuracy-based, but I've also done it where someone has outright won it," Biagi said of the kicker battle. "The great part is those guys know that I chart every single thing. So at the end of the day, their opportunity will be based off of statistics as well as situations. It's up to Cole or Alvin to see who will perform best in the clutch to separate themselves."
Other key performers on special teams include redshirt junior Taylor Robinson, whom Biagi calls a tone-setter and game-changer, sophomore Evan Johnson, redshirt freshmen Tre Siggers, Kody Fulp, sophomore Makyle Sanders and junior LaDarius Hamilton.
North Texas blocked four punts in 2017, which tied for No. 4 nationally, and had some big moments in the return game, like Johnson's 48-yard kickoff return in the closing seconds to set up a game-winning field goal against UAB.
"Evan and T-Rob really excel because every time there's a special teams period in practice, they turn it up a notch like it's a scrimmage and they don't shy away from wanting to be on special teams," Biagi said. "It's so important to have players like that who have made plays continuously on all the different phases last year because it makes the buy-in from others even easier. Now the excitement is at such a high level, they feel like it doesn't matter if its coverage, blocking or returning a kick or a punt, they just want to get after it."
Biagi has shifted the focus this season from embracing his culture to emphasizing discipline, accountability and finishing in all areas of special teams while continuing to grow within the scheme. He motivates through high-energy, high-intensity exercises, which stem from his time as an education major. Practices and the film room are Biagi's classroom, while fall Saturdays are the tests.
"On the practice field, when you create that energy, it is a direct carryover," Biagi said. "We are a product of our environment, so if I coach you with a high energy with a positive mindset, then you'll see me on game day with my demeanor in a relatively calm state. That's because I'm confident that they have put in the time and will execute in those clutch situations. We are trying to create high-energy because we know in a game that's the element we can control.
"You can't be nonchalant in special teams, you have to be full-fledged attacking and having them believe that this is the most exciting thing they've ever been a part of. We're always going to get the same thing when we go to special teams period. It's going to be fun, electric and if our attitude and effort is right, I can coach the technique if they mess that up. I can't fake the energy. That's the best part of year two for me is that they're so excited. They're pulling themselves back in and asking me to get another rep."
A former punter himself during his playing days at Marshall, Biagi is anxious for his second season in this role. He is excited about building on the standard he and players like Moore and Keena have set, and is thankful his head coach provides the opportunity to give his group their due.
"I praise coach Littrell for giving me the amount of time that I'm able to get during practices," Biagi said. "He'll be the first one to say, 'What do we need more time on in this area?' He's done a great job with that and he knows we need to be able to get these kickers in that mindset. A lot of coaches in spring aren't thinking about specialists or field goals, they're thinking offense or defense. He really does a good job embracing that third of the game that often gets overlooked. At the end of the day it's up to me to relay the message from the head coach, and I'm glad that coach gives me that opportunity."