Despite losing its first two games, the Howard University football team has improved in several areas this season. Its running game and pass defense have been much better than they were last season, when those were two of the team's weakest points.
However, the Bison's special teams continue to struggle. Howard already has given up some big kickoff and punt returns, and Hampton blocked two extra-point attempts to preserve its 28-27 victory over the Bison Saturday.
The Bison had problems throughout last season on special teams. They allowed four touchdowns on returns -- three on punts -- while giving up an average of 12.2 yards per punt return. In addition, opponents blocked two punts, the Bison made 5 of 11 field goal attempts -- four were blocked -- and just 30 of 44 extra point attempts.
Coach Steve Wilson has tried to revamp the special teams, putting more regular position players on those units than were there last season. Wilson sees improvement but admits there's still work to do.
"We don't see it as anything structural," he said. "We've had pretty good play in the first two games on special teams. I think any time you lose by one point and they block two PATs . . . I think they detected a weakness in our front wall and were able to exploit it."
For nearly every good special-teams play, there has been a bad one. Kicker Charles Card has put several kickoffs into the end zone for touchbacks, but has put two out of bounds and five have been returned for an average of 25.2 yards. Punter Jason Walker is averaging 41.1 yards per kick -- second in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference -- and has had three kicks downed inside the opponents' 20, but eight have been returned for an average of 13.2 yards.
Against Hampton, the Bison's Shaun Miller had a 39-yard punt return, but Hampton had a 46-yard punt return and a 56-yard kickoff return.
This week, the Bison face Bethune-Cookman, whose Antonio Stanley was named the 1998 first-team all-MEAC return specialist and led the conference in punt returns. He had a 63-yard punt return for a touchdown against the Bison last season. This season, the Wildcats are averaging a MEAC-best 31 yards per kickoff return, including one for a touchdown.
Linebacker Cadraan Askew, who plays on special teams, said the players realize the unit is important and that perhaps more determination is necessary.
"Special teams can [decide] a game," Askew said. "A lot of it has to do with intensity, with how hard they [work] to get downfield."
Kicking and punting also needed to improve from last season. Walker started the season doing both jobs, but injuries and some early-season struggles set him back. He eventually punted just 23 times for a 41.7-yard average and made only 4 of 8 field goal tries.
Card took over as the place kicker but had problems throughout the season, making 1 of 2 field goal attempts and just 6 of 12 extra points.
Both have started better this season. Walker is punting exclusively and doing so consistently. Card also has shown improvement. His kickoffs have been longer than they were last season. He has yet to attempt a field goal, but has made all four of the extra point tries that weren't blocked.
"We don't think the special teams have cost us a loss in any of the two football games," Wilson said. "We just haven't made the plays in all of the areas that you have to make them in all of the situations."