NORMAN — Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops admitted he's usually hesitant to call for punt blocks because of the risk involved. If it isn't successful, a team runs the risk of running into — or worse, roughing — the punter.
But during last week's preparation for the Kansas game, first-year special teams coordinator Jay Boulware noticed a potential opportunity while watching the Jayhawks' punt coverage unit on film.
“We saw a weakness, and I made Coach Stoops aware of it,” Boulware said. “We felt like we had a good chance, and we were gonna apply some pressure on them.”
The gamble paid off in the second quarter, when freshman defensive end Matt Dimon blocked a punt deep in Kansas territory for a safety, completely changing the momentum in Oklahoma's eventual 34-19 victory.
Special teams played a big role in the Sooners' win, for better and for worse. Oklahoma got a long kick return from Roy Finch and blocked an extra point that was returned for a defensive PAT.
But the Sooners also had a punt blocked of their own and missed an extra point.
“I told the players I love them,” Boulware said. “I'm gonna keep going with them. I'm gonna take the brunt of our head coach on Sunday, but I think we've got the right guys in place.”
The Sooners allowed a punt return for a touchdown in their Oct. 12 loss to Texas, and their special-teams numbers are down in several categories this season from last year.
Oklahoma is averaging about five yards less per punt return in 2013, but that largely has stemmed from the way opponents are punting the ball to Jalen Saunders, limiting his return opportunities.
Junior punter Jed Barnett is averaging about three yards less per punt than Tress Way did a year ago, but Barnett is playing his first season of major college football, while Way got better each year he was on campus.
“Right now, I feel like there's been one play a game where we just don't quite do the right thing,” Boulware said. “But you see the signs of something really special coming together.
“We're getting there, but we're not there. I've got a bunch of young kids that are playing for us, and sometimes they make young kid mistakes. We're gonna get through that.”
Special teams provide young players the opportunity to see early playing time, and can allow those guys to make a name for themselves early in their careers.
“I feel like I've progressively gotten better and better each week, and just need to keep getting better and making contributions to this team any way possible,” Dimon said. “Whether it's special teams or defense or whatever they ask.”
Boulware constantly preaches to his units that special teams can often dictate the outcome of a game, and provide a spark to give the whole team momentum. That was certainly the case after Dimon's play, which was the first punt block for Oklahoma since 2010.
“Each and every game, those situations come up,” Boulware said. “Either we take advantage of them, or we don't.
“I told them this in practice, in the meeting room, ‘Be at your best when your best is needed.' We needed Matt Dimon to go in there and block that punt for us to get our team started, and he did.”