Gators special teams become a potent weapon

Published 9:00 am Monday, October 3, 2016

The Vicksburg Gators have been good on offense this season. They’ve been excellent on defense. When it comes to special teams, they’re in a class by themselves.

Two momentum-shifting special teams plays — a fumble on a kickoff return and a 73-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Tyler Wilbert — were pivotal in the Gators’ 35-7 win over Neshoba Central on Friday night. That continued a season-long trend of big plays in the kicking game that have been instrumental in their 5-2 start.

“Special teams is one of the most important positions of the game. Special teams win games, just like defense and offense win games. Play all the positions well and it’ll pay off,” said Vicksburg defensive lineman Michael Sullivan, who also plays on the kickoff team.

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Each week, Vicksburg’s players get Saturday off and reconvene for a team meeting and practice on Sunday. The focus of the workout is always the same — special teams. Head coach Marcus Rogers said the heavy emphasis on that phase of the game is to impress upon his players their importance.

The results show that the message is getting through:

• In a season-opening win over Wayne County, the Gators set up a key scoring drive by recovering a muffed punt.

• Against Yazoo City, a blocked punt set up a short touchdown drive that helped get the ball rolling in a 45-0 rout.

• Jeff Scott returned the second-half kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown against Natchez, part of 41 unanswered points the Gators scored in a 41-7 win.

• In the first quarter Friday against Neshoba Central, the Gators scored a touchdown and then recovered a fumble on the ensuing kickoff. Three plays later, Joe Johnson threw a 14-yard touchdown pass to James Allen that made it 14-0.

Later on, in the third quarter, Neshoba Central scored to cut its deficit to 21-7. Wilbert took the ensuing kickoff back for a touchdown to immediately shift the momentum back toward Vicksburg.

“I saw the first hole and hit it. I had to take it to the house,” Wilbert said.

Seeing the work they put in during the Sunday practices pay off feeds the mindset that it’s a critical phase of the game, Rogers said.

“My philosophy is that it’s the quickest way to score six, and it’s the quickest way to give up six. So we work on special teams every day. We work on it dilligently, and on Sundays we have special teams meetings when they come in,” Rogers said. “My special teams coach, (Cedric) Wilder is doing a great job. He was the head coach at Velma Jackson for eight years, and any time you can bring a head coach on as an assistant and put him over the special teams is a plus. The guys are buying in, and they’re taking it serious.”

Rogers added that it’s not just the turnovers and touchdown returns that have been part of the Gators’ success. Even a mundane play like a punt can alter field position and help bail out the offense after a poor series while giving the defense breathing room.

Rogers credited senior kicker and punter Greg Hayden with being a valuable weapon when it comes to that. Hayden is averaging 41.3 yards per punt, and knowing he can boom a kick allows the offense to be more aggressive.

“It is a weapon. You can take some chances on offense, because you know with a kid like Greg Hayden he can turn it over and change the field position on one kick,” Rogers said.
Rogers added that even a lot of the special teams turnovers the Gators have generated can be credited to

Hayden because of his ability to vary his punts and kickoffs. In addition to the fumble the Gators recovered on Friday night, Neshoba had a muffed punt it was able to fall on.

“That’s a tribute to Greg, too, with how high he’s kicking the ball or he’s putting a low trajectory on it, or kicking it hard. It’s a change of pace, so the kids are not fielding it good,” Rogers said. “These last few games we have had those turnovers on special teams.”

About Ernest Bowker

Ernest Bowker is The Vicksburg Post's sports editor. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post's sports staff since 1998, making him one of the longest-tenured reporters in the paper's 140-year history. The New Jersey native is a graduate of LSU. In his career, he has won more than 50 awards from the Mississippi Press Association and Associated Press for his coverage of local sports in Vicksburg.

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