Other than place kickers and punters, no high school football player accepts a college scholarship with the idea of excelling on special teams. Never in private moments does he dream of hurtling into a wedge of blockers on kickoffs or possibly using his face to deflect the ball as it comes off a punter's foot. Few notice those players until some buddies are helping them off the field.
That's why Maryland's Ron Vanderlinden and other coaches motivate special-teamers any way they can. When Vanderlinden oversaw the punt return team as an assistant at Northwestern, he sent a note to each player he wanted for his unit.
"I still remember how it went," Vanderlinden said. " `Because of your ability, but more importantly because of your reliability, you have been chosen to attend the first punt return meeting.' "
No RSVP necessary.
Vanderlinden's concept of special teams management is contrary to that of most college coaches and everyone in the NFL. Instead of assigning responsibility for all the special teams to one assistant, he distributes the units among his staff. And Mike Locksley's kickoff return team is No. 1 in the country after springing Lewis Sanders for a 98-yard touchdown against Western Carolina last week.
Going into Saturday's game against West Virginia at Byrd Stadium, Sanders is averaging 48.7 yards on three returns. He was a standout on kickoff returns as a freshman two years ago, returning one 90 yards for a touchdown against North Carolina. But he missed last season while recuperating from shoulder surgery.
With the one against Western Carolina, Sanders became just the fourth Terrapin to return two kickoffs for touchdowns.
While the health risk is great for Sanders, who says he has run the 40-yard dash in 4.27 seconds, kickoff returns do not require an inordinate amount of strategy.
"You just look for a hole," he said, "and get through it as quickly as you can. That's basically it."
In Vanderlinden's special teams concept, outside linebackers coach Danny Rocco handles the kickoff and punt teams. Centers-guards coach Elliot Uzelac is in charge of the extra point and field goal teams, and defensive backs coach Doug Mallory guides the extra point and field goal defense teams.
"It gives each one some autonomy, as the coordinator of a unit," Vanderlinden said. "He coaches it, fights for meeting time. That's his baby."
Vanderlinden likes to maintain a hands-on presence, so he assigned himself the punt return team.
"We were first, ninth and fourth in the country when I had that unit at Northwestern," he said. "At Colorado [where his main responsibilities were the defensive line and coordinating the recruiting efforts from 1983 through 1991], I did kickoffs."
More and more coaches are using their best players on special teams. Penn State all-American linebacker LaVar Arrington blocked a potential tying field goal in the final seconds against Pittsburgh this past Saturday and also is on the punt return team. Maryland's special teams also feature many starters, among them left cornerback Sanders, although Vanderlinden said he limits starters to two units that involve lots of running.
"Part of building a program is having enough players [other than starters] who can be good on special teams," Vanderlinden said. "We didn't have that [his first season, 1997]. But the skill level is improving. And the players have more of a mature attitude about them. It's more a want-to thing now rather than have-to."
Terrapins Notes: Because of yesterday's rain, the team practiced indoors. . . . Charles Hill has been switched from defensive lineman to center to provide backup for starter Melvin Fowler. . . . Reserve running back Mookie Sikyala, who ran well in the season opener against Temple but missed the Western Carolina game with a sprained ankle, probably will be available Saturday. But freshman Bruce Perry probably will get the first call in relief of LaMont Jordan. . . . Coaches are borrowing time from several practice periods each day to accelerate the development of freshman quarterback Latrez Harrison.