Hardcore football fans know how large of a role special teams can have on a team's season. A kickoff return for touchdown here or a long field goal there can be the difference between a team finishing 10-2 or 8-4. For a team like Kansas State that won eight out its 10 regular season games in 2011 by a touchdown or less the overall importance of their kicking and returning units simply cannot be minimized.
Luckily for K-State fans the Wildcats have the look of a team that could dominate in this area in 2012. Bill Snyder welcomes back all of his specialists from last season who look to once again provide the Wildcats with that tiny extra edge that is often needed.
Perhaps the most exciting player special team's contributor coming back will be sophomore kick returner Tyler Lockett. As a freshman in 2011, Lockett averaged 35.19 yards per return which led the nation. He became the first K-State player ever to return kickoffs for touchdowns in consecutive weeks when he did so on October 15th against Texas Tech and then on October 22nd at Kansas.
In an odd twist, Lockett was named a first team All-American kick returner by both Sporting News and the Walter Camp Football Foundation but he was only recognized as a 2nd team All-Big 12 performer. The only concern with Lockett is that he is too small to take the punishment as a full time kick returner while also playing a large role in the offense.
While Lockett provides the game breaking excitement to the unit maybe just as importantly is the fact that K-State returns both its starting place kicker and punter from last season.
Ryan Doerr returns to man the punting position for the fourth straight season in Manhattan. While he won't necessarily wow crowds with high booming punts the way some others can, he is a very solid and dependable player that Bill Snyder can count on. Showing his consistency in every one of his three seasons, Doerr has averaged over 40 yards a punt. He has been named a preseason 3rd team All-Big 12 selection by Phil Steele in his college football preview.
The comfort level at the place kicking position going into 2012 is definitely a great thing for Wildcat fans as it was a far different feeling heading into the 2011 campaign. Before last season, Anthony Cantele was an unproven player who had never been able to win the starting job away from former Wildcat Josh Cherry.
All Cantele did last year was connect on 17 of 23 field goal attempts while winning three Big 12 special teams player of the week awards. He finished as an honorable mention candidate by the Big 12 in their postseason awards and set himself up to be a Lou Groza Award candidate in 2012.
Perhaps the two games that could best describe how good of a season Cantele had in 2011 were in the Wildcats home wins against Baylor and Texas A&M.
In the contest against the Bears, Cantele had hit two short field goals in the first quarter but had missed on a 42 yarder in the second quarter that would have given K-State the lead. His next field goal opportunity did come until there was 3:10 left in the game and with the Wildcats trailing 35-33.
He calmly stepped up and put the ball through the uprights which not only sent the stadium into an uproar but it gave the Wildcats a 36-35 lead which they would hold onto after stopping future Heisman winner Robert Griffin III in Baylor's last drive. The pressure that Cantele faced in kicking the game winner had to be immense but it was just a warm up for him compared to the Texas A&M game six weeks later.
The game against the Aggies had turned into a shootout with K-State trailing by three points late in the fourth quarter but with the football and in A&M territory. When the offense stalled with just over two minutes left in the quarter it forced Cantele to come in and hit a 44 yard field goal to tie the game.
In the 2nd overtime, Texas A&M had connected on a field goal in their possession but K-State was unable to take advantage and had to settle for their own field goal try. So once again Cantele had to step out onto the field knowing that if he missed the game would be over and his team will have lost.
Just as he had earlier in the day though he stepped up and drilled a 38 yard field goal to extend the game. K-State eventually won in the fourth overtime as A&M once again was forced to kick a field goal and Collin Klein and the offense took advantage as they bulled their way in for the winning touchdown.
The box score will show that Cantele connected on only two field goals against A&M but it does not reflect how clutch those kicks actually were. If the situation occurs this year where K-State is in need of a game tying or winning field goal then fans should have full confidence that Cantele is up to the challenge.
It would be wrong in discussing the Wildcats returning special teams players without also mentioning a player many people may not have heard of in long snapper Marcus Heit. He started every regular season game in 2011 and performed well enough that his name did not get mentioned often which is the goal of any long snapper. Despite being suspended for the Cotton Bowl due to academic reasons he looks to be back in the fold for the 2012 season.
It is true that K-State may not always have as many premium athletes on the field like an Oklahoma or Texas but by excelling in areas such as special teams they give themselves opportunities to pull out victories.