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The Battalion

The Student News Site of Texas A&M University - College Station

The Battalion

The Student News Site of Texas A&M University - College Station

The Battalion

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Jeff Banks emphasizes growth of veteran special teams unit

Photo by By Lawrence Smelser

Special teams coach Jeff Banks blows the whistle after a player makes a mistake.

Texas A&M’s most experienced returning unit for 2017 may be special teams. And with all the main pieces back, the unit has a good chance to be special.

The kicking game was solid a season ago, but even special teams coordinator Jeff Banks noted that there’s still room for improvement. Banks, though, knows the high potential the group also poses.

Taking it a step further

Punter Shane Tripucka may have been one of the most undervalued players on A&M’s roster last season.

Of his 69 punts a year ago, 16 went for 50-plus yards with 27 of them being downed inside the 20. His most remarkable stat, though – zero touchbacks.

Being able to achieve those numbers, however, was a process that started a year ago.

“We went to the Denver Broncos for OTA’s last spring and they were doing all kinds of these kicks,” Banks said after Thursday’s practice. “I took that information back and said, ‘Look, 50 percent of the NFL game right now is inside the 15, inside the 10, inside the five. So we’ve got to change how we’re practicing.’”

And that’s exactly what they did. Banks added that while most punters may have resented some of those changes, Tripucka took it head on and the change in preparation paid off.

“To Shane’s credit, a lot of punter’s would say, ‘That’s going to hurt my average.’ He was like, ‘What do you need me to do? How do you need me to do it?’ He developed that all summer and then Josh Reynolds did an unbelievable job covering and saving them from going into the end zone.”

Tripucka now has a full season behind him, which Banks believes is the most valuable tool for improvement. Moving forward, Banks hopes the two’s communication will help the duo think on the same page, increasing Tripucka’s ability to nail exact situations and diversify different types of punts.

“Two things: One, the experience of playing in games instead of just practice. Shane just got his first full season under his belt. I think that’s going to help him,” Banks said. “Secondly, some of the calls between him and I – we have a lot of different punts in our bag… Me calling what he is best at will help that situation, too.”

Kick it to Kirk

At times last season, Christian Kirk was isolated in the punt return game with opponents strategizing shorter and more difficult kicks to field, causing A&M’s lethal returner to take more fair catches than desired.

As the year progressed though, teams became less respectful of Kirk’s abilities, allowing him to strike at the right moments.

“You’ve got to get a little bit lucky, but they can mishit balls, too,” Banks said of the strategic art of punting to Kirk. “You can play later in the season and it goes into the wind and now they don’t have much control and here’s where you’ve got a chance and that’s what happened.”

For the season, Kirk was only able to return 13 punts, but when he did Kirk made his opponents pay – averaging 21.7 yards per return, taking three back to the house.

“His ability to not only field the ball, make great decisions and then make the first guy miss and have the long speed in the SEC to finish returns, it’s unbelievable,” Banks added.

Banks noted that other guys would get chances to field kicks, but when asked if Kirk would be taken off punt return the answer was simple – no.

Still, Banks added that Kirk would be utilized as much as possible.

“We’re going to use him as much as we can when we have to have him,” Banks said of Kirk’s returner role. “When we don’t, we’re going to continue this offseason and fall camp to train other guys. We’ve got a lot of guys who can return.”

Returner rotation

While Kirk may be the main guy the Aggies turn to field kicks, a handful of others are on Banks’ radar to play roles in the return game, too.

“Our wave of sophomores that played last season, guys like Clifford Chattman – they’re really coming on,” Banks said. “Some are redshirt freshmen, some are sophomores or second-year players, it’s really helped our core. We’ve got a tremendous core group of guys.”

With the departure of Justin Evans, Banks is searching for at least one replacement back deep on kickoffs. That role may be taken over by a handful of guys, a couple of which are newcomers.

Banks hopes by inserting several players in those roles, a potential rotation may be developed, giving A&M options in the return game.

“On the kick return side,” Banks concluded. “You’ve got Kirk Merritt and Rakeem Boyd who are two newcomers and Trayveon Williams, now that he’s in his second season, he’s not carrying the ball 20 times a game… He’s going to be back there and he’s a home-run threat at kick returner. I think that might, if they’re productive in the games, develop into a nice core instead of using just Christian.”

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