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The Cavs hope they have a Mr. Fix-It for their special teams.
Courtesy of UVa
Larry Lewis is the Cavaliers’ special teams coordinator as well as running backs coach.
Sunday, August 25, 2013
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Larry Lewis says it takes a certain kind of player to succeed at special teams. One who’s committed. Tough. Smart.
Likewise, it takes a certain type of coach to do what Lewis has done: dedicate the lion’s share of his 32-year career to directing that “other” phase of football.
Virginia’s special teams were broken last year. Pick a category, and the Cavaliers languished in it. Kickoff coverage? They ranked 119th out of 120 FBS teams. They weren’t much better in kick returns (73rd), net punting (69th), punt coverage (81st) or punt returns (111th).
The Cavs hope they’ve found Mr. Fix-It in Lewis, who will serve as their special teams coordinator as well as their running backs coach.
“I expect an immediate impact,” said head coach Mike London, who hired the former Nevada assistant in January. “That’s why he’s here.
“I think you’ll see a different style and approach to an aggressive style of special teams play, a style that’s very fast … and a little unconventional as far as formations and alignments.”
If Lewis thinks outside the box a bit on special teams, that’s because boxes have trouble constraining one-track minds. The 56-year-old was among the pioneers in his field — a special teams coordinator when most teams didn’t have one — and knew early on that this was the niche for him.
“As I started out, I realized how important the phase can be,” said Lewis, who began his career at Weber State in 1981 before stints at Washington State, Idaho State and Colorado State. “It’s not just, ‘You guys over here that aren’t playing, you jump in over here.’ The fact that you’re playing 25 to 30 plays a game, you can really affect what happens in that ballgame.
“If you could just grab hold of this and really create something special, then this could be your edge in the game. This could be the one play that’ll make a difference in a win or a loss, either one. And I want our kids to understand that. It’s a one-play series. We can make a difference in the ballgame.”
Lewis has been addressing some of the mental mistakes from last year — running high kickoffs out of the end zone instead taking the ball at the 25-yard line, for example — but all players were given a clean slate regardless of past gaffes.
London says that Lewis has “carte blanche” to use offensive and defensive starters (outside of quarterbacks) on special teams units. The challenge is getting the most out of the team’s top athletes without wearing them out.
“For me personally, there’s enough TV timeouts, activities on the field — like The Sabre Scramble, all that stuff — where you get to catch your breath,” said tight end Jake McGee, who played on punt and kickoff coverage teams last season. “You’ve worked hard enough in the summer to be in enough shape where with 5-10 minute breaks at one time, you should be OK.”
Lewis updates his special teams philosophy every summer after meeting with a small group of coaches that share his passion for the phase. Earlier this month, he had a 45-minute phone conversation with an old coaching friend … about punt protection.
So nobody will question whether he’s devoted to this. The key will be identifying UVa players who are similarly motivated.
“Attitude is going to play an important part of it,” Lewis said of selecting the right players for his units. “Are they willing, and will they play hard? Because you look at special teams; the biggest thing with special teams isn’t really is the guy a starter or not a starter, it’s his attitude and his effort toward the special teams area.”
In other words, he wants them to care as much as he does. Only then can they fix what’s been broken.
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