Last Season: After losing both their kicker and punter due to graduation, the Louisville special teams needed new faces at those positions. Mason King took over duties as the team’s new starting punter, while Evan O’Hara and Blanton Creque split duties as the starting kicker throughout the season.
King had a solid season as a freshman, finishing in the top 20 in average yards per punt. The St. Xavier alum was the only freshman in the country to be in the top 20 in punting.
Blanton Creque finished 16/19 on the season, with a season-long of 47 yards against LSU in the Citrus Bowl. Creque took over after the Florida State game last year, also hitting 39 of 40 extra-point attempts.
In the return game, Jaire Alexander proved why he is one of the most dangerous returners in college football. The sophomore had a punt return for a touchdown against Florida State last season, and nearly had a second in the same game. Alexander finished in the top 15 in average yards per return in 2016.
Projected Starters: Mitch Hall (long snapper), Blanton Creque (kicker), Mason King (punter), Jaire Alexander (punt returner), Cornelius Sturghill & Traveon Samuel (kick returner)
With Colin Holba going to the NFL, Louisville recruited All-American Mitch Hall to replace him. Hall played in the Army All-American game last January, and was regarded as one of the best long snappers in high school last year. He’ll likely start at long snapper this year, giving the Cardinals a potential four-year starter at the position.
The rest of the starters will likely remain the same. Creque and King will likely retain their roles as starting kicker and punter, respectively. King showed improvement as the season progressed; he averaged 40.23 yards per punt in his first six games, and upped it to 46.11 yards in the final seven games of the season.
Creque took over duties in mid-September and had a decent season, mostly hitting field goals inside of 45 yards. U of L did not allow a kickoff or punt return touchdown in 2016, but the Cardinals were 111th in touchbacks last year (11 total), and did not attempt a field goal of 50+ yards.
Moving to the other side of special teams, Alexander will be the main figure at punt returner. Holding the position since his arrival in 2015, he only has one touchdown so far, but has come close to scoring a couple more and has been Louisville’s best special teams ace since Trent Guy.
Louisville rotated several guys as kick returners last season, but the best options so far have to be wide receiver Traveon Samuel and cornerback Cornelius Sturghill. Samuel is a stark contrast to the taller receivers at 5’7″, but he has great burst and the team has been able to use him in several different ways. He had a kick return for a touchdown in 2015 against Clemson, and has been used as a slot receiver and even running back. Think of Samuel as a player like Dri Archer or Dexter McCluster, one where the coaches try to get him the ball on designed plays to let him get yards in space.
Sturghill is a popular pick as the team’s other kick returner for one reason: speed. Sturghill has regularly been charted as one of the fastest men on Louisville’s roster, but missed last season due to a gunshot wound. Now that he’s back, the redshirt sophomore is a contender to start at cornerback and be in line for a big role on special teams. His speed could add another wrinkle to the return game.
Key Reserves: Ryan Betlach (long snapper), Evan O’Hara (kicker), Russ Yeast (returner)
Betlach is a senior from Tates Creek High School, and brings the most experience of any long snapper currently on Louisville’s roster. He’ll add depth to the position, in any event that Hall gets injured this season.
Evan O’Hara is the only other kicker on Louisville’s roster with game experience. O’Hara started Louisville’s first three games, hitting 3-of-6 field goal attempts last season.
Another guy to watch is cornerback Russ Yeast. Yeast was an Under Armour All-American selection, but can play wide receiver and on special teams. The son of former Kentucky standout Craig Yeast, Russ is currently the backup behind Alexander on punts, but his fluid hips and acceleration could get him some reps as a returner this season.
Be sure to check out our other previews: