Southern hopes it has found the final piece to its special teams puzzle.
The Jaguars return units have been outstanding, and their coverage units have been solid, but the kicking has had its ups and downs.
On Monday, though, Southern’s Greg Pittman was named Southwestern Athletic Conference Specialist of the Week, an honor that Jaguars return specialist Willie Quinn has won twice. Pittman made three 40-yard field goals in a 28-21 victory against Alabama State on Saturday.
“When your kicker gets you 10 points in a game (that) you win by seven,” Southern coach Dawson Odums said, “you know it’s important.”
It wasn’t a perfect night for Pittman, who missed his first field-goal attempt, also from 40 yards, and was just 1-for-3 on extra points.
The missed field goal came on Pittman’s first kick of the night, which came a week after he was benched during a 42-28 victory at Jackson State. The Tigers blocked two of Pittman’s extra points and a 29-yard field goal before he was replaced by Kyle Yonke, who missed an extra point but made a 29-yard field goal.
Special teams coach Marty Biagi let Pittman collect his thoughts, then visited with him on the sideline after the initial miss.
“He still seemed real confident,” Biagi said, “so we stayed with him.”
Pittman said he felt confident because he hit the ball well, and it hooked wide left by no more than a foot.
“It was probably one of the best balls I had hit all week,” he said. “Going back to the sideline, I was disappointed that we didn’t put it through, but I know that as a kicker my job is to align straight and trust my swing. If I do that, it’s going to go straight down the middle. When we went out for the second one, I had no worries.”
Pittman’s next kick was another 40-yarder, and he made that one, but his first extra point was blocked. He made a second 40-yarder, missed an extra point, made another 40-yarder, then connected on his final extra point.
It has been and up-and-down season for Pittman and the Jaguars’ kicking. He was injured during a drill in preseason camp when a teammate stumbled while rushing from the edge and fell into Pittman’s kicking leg during his follow-through.
Pittman’s knee was scoped to shave down his damaged radial and lateral meniscus. With backup Matt Hill academically ineligible, Southern was scrambling to find a kicker.
Biagi found a candidate in Yonke, who was enrolled at Colorado State but wasn’t on the football team. Yonke, a standout high school soccer player who had never kicked in an organized football game, transferred to Southern and was the kicker for the first three games of the season.
He made a 37-yard field goal, missed a 29-yarder and a 36-yarder was blocked. He was 5-of-10 on extra points, missing three and having two blocked.
Pittman returned for the SWAC opener at Prairie View on Sept. 20. He was nearly perfect, making all four extra points and field goals of 39 and 29 yards before missing his final attempt from 40.
The following week’s game at Alcorn State marked the start of a rash of blocked kicks. The Braves blocked an extra point and a 36-yard field goal, and a week later Arkansas-Pine Bluff blocked an extra point.
Pittman made all five extra points — and the Jaguars needed every one of them — in a 35-34 victory at Alabama A&M, but the blocks returned a week later at Jackson State.
The grass at Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium was unusually high, a stark contrast to Southern’s barren practice field. But field conditions shouldn’t be much of an issue the rest of the season.
The next two games, against Texas Southern and Mississippi Valley State, will be played on the familiar surface at A.W. Mumford Stadium. The regular-season finale will be played in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in the Bayou Classic against Grambling and, if the Jaguars win the West Division, they will be indoors again for the SWAC title game at NRG Stadium in Houston.
“I feel like the best games of my career are ahead of me,” Pittman said.
Southern leads the SWAC in kickoff returns (26.1 yards per return) and is third in punt returns (14.4). It is third in net punting (37.2) and seventh in kickoffs (34.4), which are handled mostly by Yonke and occasionally by punter Paul Randle Soden.
But the Jaguars are seventh in field-goal percentage (.615) and last in PAT percentage (.725), having failed on 11-of-40 attempts.
“I think everybody in the SWAC and everybody who follows Southern knows that nobody takes special teams as seriously as we do,” Pittman said. “We’ve had some mishaps on the field goal and punt unit, and we want to be as good as everybody else. Adding one more piece to the puzzle would really set us apart.”
Linebacker Demetrius Carter was named SWAC Co-Defensive Player of the Week. He had a game-high 11 tackles, including two sacks, and broke up two passes against Alabama State. He shared the award with Grambling linebacker Aaron Breed. … Defensive end Justin Woods injured his right knee in practice Monday night. Odums said he would know more about the severity of the injury Tuesday.