LUBBOCK, Texas — The first couple of games of the football season, Texas Tech running back DeAndre Washington ran downfield to cover kickoffs — and he’s the Red Raiders’ leading rusher.
Lined up right next to Washington on the kickoff-coverage unit was Justis Nelson, who also throws blocks as a member of the punt return team. And Nelson’s a starting cornerback who plays virtually every snap on defense.
Some coaches view special teams as a way to integrate young players who don’t see much playing time otherwise. Tech’s taking a different approach this season: If the Red Raiders are going to get beat on special teams, they’ll do so while using mostly their best players.
Those units have been loaded with starters and top reserves.
“Most important, you want to definitely have your best tacklers on your coverage units,” new special-teams coach Darrin Chiaverini said last week. “If you’re going to be playing a really tough team — a Big 12 opponent or SEC opponent — you’d better make sure you have your best tacklers on the field on coverage units.
“Even when we were in the National Football League, we had starters that played on coverage units, so it’s something I truly believe in and coach [Kliff] Kingsbury’s been good about letting me use the best players and put them on the field.”
— DeAndre Washington
Starting linebackers Kenny Williams and V.J. Fehoko and top backup Micah Awe are among the Red Raiders’ most used special teams players. Also showing up on more than one unit are defensive starters Sam Eguavoen, Keenon Ward and Nelson, second-team linebackers Sam Atoe and Austin Stewart and backup running back Quinton White.
All except Atoe have played a lot of snaps on offense or defense.
“We’re trying to have the best 11 guys on the field at all times,” Washington said. “So if it takes a few starters being on special teams, then we’ve all bought in. Coach Chev’s one of the best special-teams coaches I’ve been around, so we’ve all bought in.”
Second-team safety Josh Keys rotated into Washington’s spot on the kickoff team last week, but the Tech running back made a kickoff-coverage tackle at the 15-yard line in the season opener.
“I guess he liked my speed,” Washington said. “And I used to play defense a little bit in high school so I’m not afraid to put my nose in there. I guess that’s what caught his attention.”
The Red Raiders want to avoid a repeat of last year, when they gave up a kickoff-return touchdown, a punt-return touchdown — both to conference opponents — and committed other blunders on special teams.
That’s a big reason Kingsbury hired a full-time special teams coach. And he’s giving Chiaverini some freedom in choosing whom to use. Chiaverini wants to give some of his most used players breathers, but pushing to get the most out of them.
“You want to keep guys healthy, but you want to win,” he said. “If that means some of those guys have to go a little bit more, then that’s how it’s got to be.”
That means starters such as Nelson have to take care of their bodies.
“Sometimes even after practice, I’ll just get little short sprints in to keep my conditioning up,” Nelson said. “It gets tiring after a little bit, but it’s a game. You’re going to be tired. You’ve just got to keep pushing.”
Fehoko said he hardly played special teams during his three seasons at Utah before he graduated and transferred to Tech for his senior season. Now he starts at inside linebacker and is on the punt team, kickoff and kickoff return teams and field-goal block unit.
“They try to put us in the best positions possible,” Fehoko said. “I tend to be a more physical presence, so they try to put me in the best positions to play to my strengths.”
Chiaverini said he’s already made some judgments about when to back off. Chiaverini said Williams could make the NFL as a special-teams player. (“He’s that good at it.”) Nevertheless, he’s reduced Williams workload on one unit — the punt-return team — from full-timer to rotating. The same with Stewart.
And although Chiaverini favors experienced upperclassmen — starting defensive end Branden Jackson on punt coverage, for another example — he’s breaking in some youngsters, too. Freshman cornerbacks Tevin Madison and Jah’Shawn Johnson are both starting on a special team, and freshman safety Derrick Dixon is in the special-teams two-deep.
“There’s going to be some young guys that get opportunities to play,” Chiaverini said. “Now it’s up to the young guys and guys that are also in the reserve positions to show they can do it a high level, because you can’t have drop-off. Bottom line, we’ve got to win the kicking game every week. If we can do that, then we give ourselves a competitive edge.”