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Blue Raiders search for key special teams replacements

Gendreau heads list of returners

March 31, 2010 · Athletic Communications

While Middle Tennessee's 2010 football team will return three major players from last year's special teams, the search is on for replacements for a quartet of stellar performers who exhausted their eligibility. The good news is that both Head Coach Rick Stockstill and Special Teams Coordinator Steve Ellis are confident that good replacements can, and will, be found.

Heading the list of returnees is All-Sun Belt Conference place-kicker Alan Gendreau, who led the team in scoring with 104 points. Gendreau, a rising junior, hit 18 of 22 field goals and 50-51 extra point attempts, and ranked 31st nationally in overall scoring.

Also back are seniors Phillip Tanner and Jeremy Kellem. Tanner, a kick returner and running back, missed most of last season with a knee injury, but did well in 2008, returning a kickoff for a touchdown against North Texas. Kellem was fifth nationally in blocked kicks a year ago.

Finding replacements for such standouts as punter David DeFatta, kick returner and gunner Desmond Gee, long-snapper Adam Wade, and kick holder and punt returner Patrick Honeycutt, is the focus of Ellis and Stockstill.

"I thought we were good, special teams-wise, last year. I thought we did a good job on both our punt-block and kick-block teams," said Stockstill, but tempered that observation with areas that could use improvement. "I thought we were inconsistent in punting the ball, and in kickoff returns. We can really improve in those areas. Our kickoffs weren't very good either. Although we were good in a couple of phases of the game, we were only average to below average in some other areas.

One of the guys to be replaced is Patrick Honeycutt, the sure-handed punt returner and holder on field goals.

"Honeycutt did a great job of fielding the ball, and he made great decisions, but he wasn't a threat as a return man. And Des(mond) had some nice returns as well," noted Stockstill. "But I am confident that the guys we have coming back can replace those guys. We are looking at Garrett Andrews and Zach Franklin, maybe Nate Toulson. We'll find somebody that we are comfortable with.

Stockstill pointed out that they will not spend a lot of time on kick coverage's in the spring. The team has already worked on field goals and field goal blocks this spring, and just started working on punts this week.

The search for Adam Wade's replacement has begun, but Stockstill noted that two more long-snappers will be coming in at fall camp.

"We have to find one of those because when Adam quit in February, it left us in a bind from a time standpoint in being able to sign somebody new."

The Blue Raiders had two very fast punt coverage specialists, called gunners, last year in Gee and freshman Kenneth Gilstrap. Gee is gone, and Gilstrap was injured mid-way thru the season.

"We expect Gilstrap to be back at full speed in August, and he will help us there again," said Stockstill. "And we have Rod Isaac and Malcolm Beyah and some other guys that can run, so we know that we can find some guys that can help us."

Tanner will again get a shot at returning kickoffs, but Stockstill said whether or not he will be a starter will depend on how well he does."

Ellis, in his second season as special team's coordinator in addition to coaching the cornerbacks, feels like the punting job is in very capable hands with Nate Toulson.

"Toulson is really dependable, he's learned from DeFatta, and he can definitely get the job done," said Ellis. "He just hasn't had a lot of experience. We are very confident that Toulson is going to do a great job. He's got a strong leg, a quick release, very accurate, he can directional kick, he can rugby kick, he can do all of the things that DeFatta did, maybe even better. We are very excited about him."

Speed is an absolute must on kick coverage teams, and Ellis feels very good about several of the redshirts coming up from last year.

"Tyler Mason may be a gunner, and we will also have Marquise Dixon, Craig Allen and others on the coverage teams. These guys didn't play last year, but will play vital roles for us this season."

Blocking kicks made a huge impact on the success that Middle Tennessee had last year, particularly in one game. Trailing by ten points in the second quarter, the Blue Raiders blocked two kicks, returned one for a touchdown, and sacked the FAU punter on a third kick.

"It turned that game around, and may have turned our season around," Ellis pointed out.

"We have some punt blockers coming back. Jeremy Kellem is one of the top players in the county in blocking kicks."

How are the decisions made on how to try for a punt block?

"We go in there as a staff and decide what we want to do, then bring the kids in and show them. You know, once we block one kick, the kids get all fired up and want to block another one, and they are like Piranhas going after others. The kick blocking is all on them because they are the ones that execute the plan. When we have a chance to block a kick, these guys really get jacked up. They really want to block one."

Ellis also made a noteworthy statement about Gendreau.

"He is one of the top kickers in the county. He is stronger than he's ever been, and he's very accurate. But what people don't realize is how hard he works. He spends a lot of time in the weight room with Russell Patterson, and they work on his flexibility and strength, as Russell does with all of our kickers. He does a real good job with those guys.

"One thing about Gendreau is that he studies football, he understands football. He practices all the time, many times all by himself. He is a guy who puts in the time, and it has definitely paid off for him."

Ellis noted that Gendreau is actually a very good player, not just a kicker. Gendreau went through mat drills last month, the whole thing, every station, when most of the kickers stayed at the special station for them.

"We always say we want our 11 best players on the field at any one time, he is truly one of our 11 best players when he is out there for placekicking. He did every drill in mat drills, and that really impressed me. He is a great athlete."

Middle Tennessee will continue spring football on Friday before taking off for Easter weekend. The spring game will be on Saturday, April 10th.

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