Ask Dan Mullen what his team did at practice on any given day, and he will almost always say, "Oh, you know, offense, defense and special teams."
Offense and defense usually get the headlines, but unlike many head coaches Mullen pays particular attention to the special teams and considers the third part of the game just as important as the rest.
He believes his special teams were hit and miss in 2010, but he does not foresee sweeping changes to the unit in 2011, with many new players on board.
"We're always gonna tweak some things a little bit, but our general, our philosophy, we have an attacking philosophy on special teams, isn't going to change," Mullen said.
Mullen has hands full on special teams, trying to find out the best field goal kickers, punters, kickoff men, punt returners, kick returners, gunners, blockers and line penetrators.
The problem for Mullen can be getting a straight look at his first team in each situation. Because specials teams is made up of players from both the offense and defense, Mullen said he has to split them up into practice. He puts together a punt return made up entirely of offensive players, for instance, and a punt coverage team made up entirely of offensive players. Why? Because offense and defense wear different colored jerseys in practice. If he mixed them, Mullen said, chaos would ensue.
"What we're into now is we've installed our special teams, so we're getting into a lot of scrimmage special teams, which actually can look sloppy because, to make it not complicated, you have a whole offensive punt unit and a defensive punt return unit so everybody is in the same matching jerseys, so the returner knows who is on what team," Mullen said. "Otherwise, you can't tell anything, it's just a mess running down the field. You don't actually have your team, your ones out there, your twos out there, because it'll be kind of intermixed from those guys."
On kickoffs and punts, most eyes are on the return man, but Mullen said finding the gunners is just as important. Though Mullen said, "We call it our missile." He said senior defensive back Marvin Bure was a standout at the position last year and he expects more of the same in 2011.
But back to those returners. In the open portion of fall training camp, the punt return team consisted of cornerback Johnthan Banks and receivers Chad Bumphis, Jameon Lewis and Brandon Heavens. The kickoff return team consisted of receiver Michael Carr, running back LaDarius Perkins and true freshman running backs Derrick Milton and Josh Robinson.
Surely, more players will experiment at both spots, particularly as Milton and Robinson are expected to redshirt in 2011. One such player is juncior college transfer cornerback Darius Slay, who has extensive experience and success returning.
Mullen conceded as much, saying he will try out a few more players on Friday in the Bulldogs' big scrimmage at Davis Wade stadium.
"We're getting a pretty good handle on who is going to play where," Mullen said. "I think after Friday night, there are a couple of more guys I want to see do some things to make sure we're ready to go. It will all be live. We did a bunch live today on special teams."
Mullen said he expects to set the depth chart next week as he prepares for the season-opener against Memphis.
Part of that depth chart will be the actual kickers themselves. Derek DePasquale, who took over field goal duties in 2010, seems to be entrenched as the starter there. DePasquale said himself, however, that walk on Brian Egan has been impressive on kickoffs, saying, "Egan's kickoffs are looking really good. He's been putting them into the end zone and deeper. We're really confident in our kickoffs this year. He has a stronger leg than I do and it shows. His kickoffs are always 10-yards further than mine and that's fine. I'd rather him do kickoffs. I have more confidence in him than I do myself."
Mullen was informed of this statement and was quick and witty with his response.
"Was it DePasquale trying to get himself out of doing it right there? I mean, those guys all stick together and try to get more followers on their twitter accounts or something," Mullen said laughing. "[Egan] is doing good. I think he's working, trying to get inconsistent. I don't know if we have anybody that's kicking it out. If we can, I'll be very happy."
It's the field goals that were particularly problematic. In the one live session viewed by reporters, DePasquales and Egan combined to go 1-for-8, DePasquale with only accurate kick, one from extra point distance. Multiple kicks were low and either blocked or stopped by hitting an offensive lineman in the rear.
"Field goals have been getting better," Mullen said. "I mean I don't know if they could get any worse, could they?"
Finally, the last battle is one to replace Heath Hutchins at punter. That spot is up for grabs between Baker Swedenburg and William Berg.
Swedenburg seems to have the upper hand, but Mullen appears confident with either one, so long as they don't revert to bad habits.
"The positive thing is every time we go in more of a live situation they perform very well," Mullen said. "Every time we're not in a live situation they drive me out of my mind with inconsistency. I guess we'd like to see them boom it when it counts, and every time I've tried to put a pressure situation the punters have responded."