March 31, 2010
RUSTON, La. - As the Louisiana Tech football team works through its first spring practice season with new head coach Sonny Dykes, LATechSports.com will be taking a look at the progress of various positions on the team. Fifth in this series of installments is a look at the special teams with special teams coordinator Mark Tommerdahl.
Two of the stronger aspects of the special teams unit returns in 2010 with a strong kicking game in the leg of rising sophomore Matt Nelson and a talented return game led by rising senior Phillip Livas.
Nelson took center stage of Tech's kicking game as a true freshman last season, connecting on 12 of his 16 field goal attempts with three of his misses being attempts of 52, 58 and 58 yards, respectively. The Cibolo, Texas native made six consecutive field goals of under 50 yards before missing on a 38-yard attempt at Nevada on Oct. 9.
Averaging 56.9 yards per kickoff last season, Nelson sent three kickoffs into the end zone for a touchback but had seven kickoffs sail out of bounds, something the young kicker is working on avoiding this spring and upcoming fall.
"Matt just needs to mature," Tommerdahl said. "Not from a mental standpoint because I think he has a great demeanor, but physically. He has gained some weight over the course of the winter and he'll continue to physically mature. That will really help him as the season goes on. He is a really accurate field goal kicker and he's a mentally tough guy but as the season went on last year, his leg had a tough time holding up especially on kickoffs. He just needs to get himself to be physically stronger so he can withstand the grind of a Division I football season."
One of the behind-the-scenes aspects of Nelson's preparation is the mentoring he gets from former great Tech kickers like Matt Stover, Josh Scobee and Chris Bonoil. Stover and Scobee are currently kicking in the NFL and Stover reached the Super Bowl last season with the Indianapolis Colts.
"He has good role models to follow and he communicates with those guys," explained Tommerdahl. "They understand what he is going through. If he needs to make a slight adjustment, he has someone he can rely on in that regard. They have all been in his shoes at this place and that helps. Above and beyond that, he gets good advice when he needs it but he is a very capable guy in and of his own right also."
One of the highlights of the entire Louisiana Tech team is when Phillip Livas goes back to return kicks. Livas, who hails from Houma, La., has a school-record six kickoffs or punts returned for a touchdown in his three years and has a chance to tie or set the NCAA record in that category this fall. The current NCAA record for kickoffs/punts returned for a touchdown is eight, a feat that has been achieved four times with the last being Chad Owens of Hawai'i from 2001-04.
Last season, Livas returned a punt 85 yards for a score at Navy on Sept. 12 and then brought back a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown at Utah State.
"He [Livas] is always a threat to bring one back to the house anytime," Tommerdahl said. "That is just a tremendous weapon to have. People respect him based upon how we get kicked to and he is an exciting guy. He is truly a `Hold your breath' player. Every time he touches the ball, you're waiting to see something happen."
"Certainly, he can be a respected weapon for us," continued Tommerdahl. "I think he has a lot of courage doing some of the things he's done for us. We have to do a good job of putting good people in front of him. It would be the cherry on top of a stellar career if he can get the NCAA record [for kick/punt returns for a touchdown]."
Livas isn't Tech's only weapon going back to return punts. Last fall, true freshman Lyle Fitte established himself as a threat on kickoffs, averaging 22.2 yards per kick return and recording three returns of over 50 yards. Opponents still haven't had the chance to kick the ball to the speedster Richie Casey, who could prove just as dangerous as Livas and Fitte when returning kicks.
"There will be some other names [returners] that we really haven't seen yet like Richie Casey," said Tommerdahl. "Lyle Fitte was a pleasant surprise for us last year as a true freshman as a legitimate fast guy willing to hit it up in there. Richie Casey is a smooth running dog and we'll see how he does back there. We're also looking at a bunch of new guys. Lennon Creer, for instance, has a chance to get back there and he's done it before. That is what spring ball is for, the chance to look at a lot of guys."
Impressively, the speed that Louisiana Tech has in its return game is possibly one of the fastest in the nation. That is shown especially with a player like Livas, who is the only Division I player returning in 2010 that has scored a touchdown of 50-plus yards four different ways: a 70-yard reception vs. Idaho (2007), a 72-yard run vs. Idaho (2008), an 85-yard punt return at Navy (2009) and a 100-yard kickoff return at Utah State (2009).
"I have been fortunate to be around some really good special teams in the past and certainly this group is on par with anything that I have been around," said Tommerdahl, who has coached special teams at schools like Alabama, Minnesota, New Mexico, TCU and Texas A&M. "But so much also depends on what we do in front of them [blocking-wise]."
The current goal for Tommerdahl is to continue improving the return game while finding guys in front of the returners to block well and other players that can block kicks. Louisiana Tech only blocked one kick during the 2009 season as Tym Toussaint blocked a punt at Fresno State.
"Right now we are just trying to find guys who have a feel for it [blocking kicks]," Tommerdahl explained. "You can scheme it up a lot, and some schemes do work, but you either knack for it or you don't. That's a goal for our team this spring is to find out who has a knack for blocking kicks."
Fans don't have to wait until the T-Day Spring Game to get their first glimpse of Tech's special teams in action as all practices are open to the public. Bulldog fans are encouraged to attend the next practice, which will be held at 4 p.m. on Wednesday, March 31 at Joe Aillet Stadium with the second scrimmage of the spring season set for approximately 7 p.m. on Thursday, April 1 with a light practice session held at 6 p.m.
For the most comprehensive coverage of Louisiana Tech's spring football practices, check out the Spring Football Central at LATechSports.com. For complete coverage of Bulldog Football, please visit the official home of Louisiana Tech Athletics at LATechSports.com.