Everybody in football plays lip service to special teams being critical, but many don't follow up.
There there's a program like James Madison that requires its players to work towards a football masters degree in the science of special teams. It is to be studied, it is to be absorbed and it is to be implemented. And in two of the last three playoff games, James Madison set the tone with an early special teams play against strong opposition.
In Saturday's FCS National Title game, it happened on Youngstown State's very first offensive possession that ended in a punt. JMU's Justin Wellons lined up ready to go for the ball, as the coaching staff had called for a block. He told HERO Sports they got the look they wanted and he was able to get a chunk of the punt.
Special teams cohort Robert Carter Jr. pounced on it and just two plays and 43 seconds later — with excellent field position — James Madison was up 7-0 and never relinquished the lead. In the postgame press conference, head coach Mike Houston said they felt like they'd seen on film the potential to go after YSU punts.
Big special teams plays are deflating, and that's exactly what JMU banks on. The program came in No. 1 in the nation in punt return average and is No. 14 in the country when it comes to net punting. Oh, and the Dukes have the No. 1 guy when it comes to punt returns for a touchdown — Rashard Davis with four.
"Our coaches have been harping on us all year about special teams being the third phase of the game," Wellons told HERO Sports after the championship game. "If you look across the board at our special teams, most of us are either starters or sixth men off the bench types on offense or defense. We put just as much emphasis as we do any snap on defense or offense."
It pays dividends. In the first half of what was expected to be a good matchup with Sam Houston State in the quarterfinals, JMU's Davis returned a punt for a score and two true freshmen combined to score another one just a series or two later. Adam Smith blocked the punt and Bryce Maginley returned it for a score to give true freshmen everywhere something to cheer about.
Two touchdowns from punt returns in the first half were back breakers in what would become a blowout win over Sam Houston State.
"You could tell when (Houston) came in that special teams would be a big part of what we do," Carter told HERO Sports. "With today, we were in a rush formation to block the kick and had a great scheme all week. I was just following my keys and doing my job and I saw the ball and went for it. It was all just a blur, all I was thinking was just going straight to the ball."
A blur … probably the way JMU's opponents have felt after trying to track back through what happened.