Darren Carrington doesn’t really care what his role is on this year’s Oregon football team. The redshirt freshman, who worked primarily with the scout team last year, isn’t trying to prove anything to the coaches either. It’s a lot simpler than that.
“Honestly, I’m not even just saying this, I’m just trying to be the best teammate and help wherever I can,” Carrington said. “I really want to get on that kickoff team and hopefully make some plays there, punt return, block or even if they have me at returner.”
With obvious versatility and a developed mentality set toward getting on the field, the wide receiver exemplifies a number of underclassmen’s attitudes heading into this season: Contribute, no matter what the position.
Coded within that psychology is a message that is carried over from the coaching staff to the veterans to the newcomers. It’s a message that special teams staples in years past, like Erick Dargan and Ayele Forde, were able to understand quickly, and a reason for why the Ducks have never failed to make an impact in this area.
“Special teams is a major factor in the football game that no one pays attention to, it can change the momentum of the game,” Forde said. “Might not have glamour to it, but it’s very important.”
For Forde, who came to Oregon in 2010 as a walk-on, the opportunities special teams provided extended beyond the football field. After emerging as one of the top cover men in 2012, averaging one tackle per game, Forde earned a scholarship from the university.
Then a season later, Forde proved his worth exponentially, finishing the year with the most tackles (10) among non-defenders. The redshirt senior, who is behind running backs like Royce Freeman, Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner, will carry that over this year now as a leader of a unit that is so vital to any team’s momentum.
“I take pride in being able to contribute to (special teams),” Forde said. “It’s a good opportunity for everyone on the team, especially if you don’t play that much.”
Evidently so. Forde took advantage of the only opportunity he may have had while attending the UO at a time when a new NFL talent at running back was graduating each year.
For others like Carrington, a redshirt freshman who should see plenty of time lined up on offense Saturday, special teams is just a part of a transitionary process that comes with playing at the next level.
“The truth is, you got to play on special teams if you want to play on offense or defense,” Dargan said. “We tell our young guys, ‘you want to play, the first opportunity you’re going to get is to play on special teams, so take advantage of it’ and I think these young guys, that’s what they’ve set out and are doing.”
Dargan is proof of that statement. As a redshirt senior, the once four-star recruit is embarking on his final season at the collegiate level and the first as a week-one starter. As one of the secondary’s top reserves over the years, Dargan has been a staple on special teams and earned himself second team Pac-12 honors last season for his work with the unit.
Now he’s a full-fledged starter. Though the fact that he will act in a more dominant role this season will not translate into an absence from certain special teams units. This helps special teams coach Tom Osborne in more ways than one, when trying to promote a culture to highly touted recruits coming from high school, that special teams does in fact matter.
“When you really get your culture going it’s when the older guys are teaching the younger guys,” Osborne said. “None of these guys playing at this level played on special teams in high school. If they’re the best player in the city, they’re not covering kickoffs.”
“It’s going to garner much more credibility coming from older players than just some old ball coach because they just think it’s just coach talk. If you get it from a player it carries much more credibility.”
When looking at statistics and year-by-year production, the message has clearly been received. Osborne’s unit led the Pac-12 and was ninth in the country in punt coverage (3.25 average), while also being only one of 16 teams in the FBS to return both kickoffs and punts for touchdowns throughout last season.
With that in mind, each year shuffles a brand new band of players vying to appear on the field, which makes this part of the game such a poignant theme among coaches.
“It’s really emphasized for the younger guys,” redshirt freshman Devon Allen said. “It gives them the ability to travel and to play. If they can show up on special teams, they’re going to travel, play and help us win. The coaches really care about that stuff.”
As the value of the Oregon program has grown on a national stage, so has the spotlight on their special teams. Return men like De’Anthony Thomas and LaMichael James, the benefactors of the unit as a whole, were able to continuously change the outlook of games in just one play. But it hasn’t just exposed the ones with the ball in their hands.
It has provided players with scholarships, not to mention ways to make impacts. Buying in is just the first step.
“When I first got here, I really didn’t understand the importance of special teams,” starting cornerback Troy Hill said. “Now, I understand how important it is. If I do get the opportunity to go to the next level, I plan on playing.”
Playing on special teams can also spark a flame that benefits both sides of the field. Whether it be a breathtaking tackle or a kickoff return to the house, special teams is often described as a tempo setter and this year’s crop of athletes are driven by that understanding.
“Definitely boosts your confidence,” said Allen, who is listed as a starting wide receiver this week. “Like if I can be on kickoff return and I take a kickoff back for a touchdown, it’s definitely going to boost my confidence and make me feel better for the rest of the game.”
Inside the coaches room and carried over onto the field, a culture has been created at Oregon. It’s easy to see when redshirt freshman like Carrington and Allen’s mindset is identical to seniors like Dargan and Forde. This could mean even better production this season than in years past. At least that’s what the players believe.
“Our effort has been pretty good from what I’ve seen. It’s a lot better than last year,” Allen said. “We had a pretty good year on special teams last year. If we’re doing better than last year, we’re just going to play that much better.”
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