NORMAN — Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops hired Jay Boulware as his special teams coordinator last offseason, and the results in 2013 were largely positive.
Jalen Saunders returned two punts for touchdowns; Matt Dimon came through with a critical blocked punt at Kansas; and the Sooners scored on a fake field goal in their upset victory at Oklahoma State.
Kicker Michael Hunnicutt was his usual reliable, solid self, while punter Jed Barnett made significant improvements throughout his first season in Norman.
Boulware is working this spring through some special teams personnel decisions, most notably who will return kicks and punts.
Here’s a look at a few of the Sooners’ key special teams positions and where they stand entering Saturday’s spring game.
Gone are Saunders and kick returner Roy Finch, leaving Boulware without any experienced return men at the moment.
Junior receiver Sterling Shepard returned punts at Heritage Hall and appears likely to take over for Saunders in 2014, although Boulware said that’s not final just yet.
“It remains to be seen as to the impact he'll have next year as a returner,” Boulware said. “But I think he has the right mentality. I think he has the right athletic ability. And I'm curious to see how he'll perform. He'll get a shot next year for sure.”
Boulware added that he wants to wait until the entire team is together in the fall before he makes any final decisions because there might be some freshmen who could get into the mix.
Barnett arrived from junior college last spring, and it took him awhile to adapt. He struggled in the 2013 spring game, averaging 36.4 yards on five punts that included a 17-yarder.
But as the season progressed, so did Barnett. In the Sooners’ Bedlam win — played in the freezing cold — Barnett was spectacular, twice pinning the Cowboys at their own 1-yard line.
“He’s a guy that, when I first got here, I had to convince him to buy into what I was doing,” Boulware said. “Somewhere around the middle of the spring, toward the end, he started saying, ‘Hey coach, whatever you what.’ … He got better and better and better. He bought into the technique we’ve been teaching.”
Hunnicutt’s fake field-goal touchdown reception in Bedlam puts him in a unique place for any kicker: He’s one of three players on the current OU roster — along with Shepard and fullback Aaron Ripkowski — to have caught a collegiate touchdown pass.
“Are you kidding me?” Boulware laughed when told that statistic. “No. That is it?
“We need to put him at receiver. We need all the help we can get. That is funny. Gosh, you guys pull out some stats; I tell you what.”
In all seriousness, though, Hunnicutt’s value can’t be overstated. He’s converted 86.1 of his 72 career field-goal attempts, an important team strength to have that can often be overlooked.
Hunnicutt was a semifinalist for the Lou Groza Award as the nation’s top kicker in 2013.
The Sooners landed a gem with incoming freshman Wesley Horky, who signed as a late addition to the 2014 recruiting class. He will replace Austin Woods, who was a reliable, consistent snapper, but wasn’t great on punt coverage.
OU expects to get both with Horky.
“I’m elated about it to be honest with you,” Stoops said. “The time that he gets (the snap) back is impressive. … It’s not a big deal until you don’t have it.”