There are few bigger NO NO YES moments than a KaVontae Turpin kick return from inside the ten yard line. Any time a Frog fan sees #25 moving backwards, towards the goal line, is sure to cause palpitations, but as worrisome as it is for those following TCU, it’s even more frightening for opponents. Just watch what he did against Kansas last fall...
Coaches will tell you that if a ball is over your head at the ten, let it bounce into the end zone. For the diminutive Turpin, you could probably say that’s true for the 15 yard line. But Turp has never been one to pass up an opportunity to make a highlight play, and anyone that has watched him over the last few seasons would want the electric playmaker to fair catch if he has any room at all.
Changes made to the collegiate kickoff rules last spring were enacted to cut down on the number of returns, thusly - in theory - cutting down on the number of injuries. The new rule states that the receiving team can fair catch the kick inside the 25-yard line and have it result in a touchback. Basically, you can guarantee a starting line of scrimmage at the 25 on both short and long kicks.
The rule makes sense and the reasons behind it are logical. But, for as TCU’s Gary Patterson sees it, it won’t make much of a difference. “I don’t think people are going to fair catch. Only at the end of the ball game - where you can fair catch so you’re not going to fumble. You think Turpin or one of those guys are going to fair catch it if you kick it to the five?”
Turpin is definitely not going to fair catch at the five, that we know. And most of the game’s premier return men won’t either. But, it could certainly impact the end of games, when you limit turnover opportunities or potential big plays. For Patterson, he would rather not deal with it at all. But not to avoid the big return - to protect his players. “Our whole thing is, if we could, we would kick it out of the end zone every time so we don’t have to put all ten guys running down in harm’s way. When we’ve had kickers that can kick it out, we’ve kicked it out always.”
The challenge, this season, will be finding a kicker that can do just that.
Initially, it was Cole Bunce who had the lead in the race to be the Frogs’ extra point and field goal specialist - and after a rocky beginning, he was nails down the stretch for TCU, including a couple of huge makes against Stanford in the Alamo Bowl. But, when asked last weekend, Patterson seemed to be a bit more indecisive. “Becoming more of a push. Song did better against the wind the other day in practice.”
In addition to the competition at kicker, there’s another surprising special teams battle - it looks as if Adam Nunez (he of the four punts inside the ten yard line against WVU in 2017) is engaged in a little competition with Andrew David and Dillon Jones. “Punter, that’s been a battle all along,” according to Coach Patterson. Special teams as a whole seems to have been a pleasant surprise for Patterson and co... and the confidence comes from a strange place - the long snapper. “We’ve been good - our freshman snapper has been awesome. He’s fast, he’s a bigger body. We loved the guy last year - he’s probably not as good a cover guy, but definitely a better protection guy, better field goal, extra point guy because he’s bigger. There’s a difference between getting the ball off in 1.89 and 2.84. When they stand out here, before pre-practice, they’ve got their watches. They’re going to take that snap and time everyone of them.” Have you ever heard Patterson wax so poetic about any player, let alone a long snapper? Remember the name Antonio Ortiz, because if all goes well, you won’t have to think about his position for the next four years. The 6’4”, 240 pound freshman out of Mechanicsville, VA seems to have picked up right where Lucas Gravelle left off, though he is a bigger, faster version of the now Miami Dolphin.
“If everything in the package is going right, it’s hard to get that thing blocked. So that’s one less thing for a head coach to worry about.” TCU had one punt and no field goals blocked a season ago, but it’s not just about getting the kicks off clean. A fast snapper can have a huge impact on field position in the punt game and instill confidence in your kicker on longer field goals. Having a guy that looks as good as Ortiz does is a real win.
That’s not the only interesting thing about the freshman though - according to Drew Davison at The Star-Telegram:
Ortiz played tight end, defensive end and snapper in high school, and also competed in basketball and track and field. His twin brother, Marco, is the snapper at Florida, and his father, Fred, played football at UT-Arlington in the 1980s.
If all goes well, this is the last time we will need to talk about the snapper. Hopefully, the rest of the special teams unit is just as solid all season long.