When reflecting on the success of Arkansas-Pine Bluff’s special teams play in 2012, Tyler Strickland’s heroics may come to mind.
It might not be widely known that UAPB ranked third among SWAC teams in punting and kickoff coverage, or that Strickland led the conference in field goals made. But none of that might have mattered had Strickland not come through in the clutch like he did.
His winning field goal against Jackson State in overtime of the SWAC championship game likely is the greatest kick in Golden Lions’ history.
“Last season, there were some good things, but this season I always have things to prove on, like accuracy,” Strickland said.
He converted 12 of 19 field goals and 39 of 41 extra-point attempts in his first season in a UAPB uniform. He burst onto the national scene with a season-high 50-yard field goal to break a tie against Alabama State on national television.
But Strickland, now a junior, wants to be known as a consistent threat. He spent the summer working with NFL kicking great John Carney in San Diego, the metropolitan area where Strickland calls home.
“Mentally, he taught me a whole bunch of stuff besides just going out there and kicking, like different steps, routines to make it the same kick every time,” Strickland said.
Strickland’s field goals are big, but they’re also just part of the special teams unit’s success. Much of that also rests on the returning and coverage ability of the Lions.
“We had a pretty good special teams unit all the way around, first team and second team,” UAPB seventh-year special teams coach Phil Cole said. “I think that played a big part with the little things. It wasn’t the touchdowns, but the field position.
“Aaron Godwin (a punter whose eligibility expired) did a great job for us. He changed field positions for us. When we needed the points, Ty put it through the pipes for us. We didn’t give up any points in the kickoff phase.”
Neither did the Lions give up many returning yards in that phase — 2.9 per return, to be exact.
Cole found some punting help in junior Dylan Neiheiser, who last played at Division II Malone University in Canton, Ohio, during the 2010 season. Since, he attended prep school and junior college in Texas and worked out with instructor Chris Sailer.
“I had a decent freshman season, but I felt like I could do different things at a better institute, so I found this school,” said Neiheiser, who had 11 punts fall inside the 20-yard line in 2010. “I’m looking to do big things. I want to focus on pinning teams inside the 20, so our defenses will be able to shut them down inside the 20.”
UAPB will handle long-snapping duties by committee, Cole said, with defensive linemen Damien Lee and Lawrence Henderson and tight end C.J. Branch making snaps.
Cole hopes the Lions’ return game will pick up again after a hot start to the 2012 season by then-freshman Andre Mitchell. Per game last season, he averaged 17.5 yards in kick returns and 7.4 yards in punt returns, but injuries to some of UAPB’s key blockers limited his production later in the year.
“I didn’t adjust with the injuries like I should have,” Cole said. “I’ll take probably 90 percent of that blame. I just kept going with the schemes we had.”
Sophomore Sam Bass could be a “real explosive” return man, Cole said. Running backs Justin Billings, Alton Taylor and Aaron Lagrone should handle return duties as well.