Fresno State

Steve Cameron: Bulldogs' Baxter just a special kind of guy

FRESNO -- It turns out John Baxter and I have been wondering the same thing.

For years.

Why aren't more teams good at special teams play?

Season after season, you see a few schools routinely blocking kicks, returning punts for scores, booting the ball efficiently and all the rest of it.

Air Force has been doing it forever. Ditto Virginia Tech.

And of course...

Fresno State.

But sometimes you wonder if it's rocket science, because hardly any teams are consistently good at all phases of the kicking game.

I've always thought that last bit was amazing, especially when you consider how blocked punts, scoring kick returns and field position decide so many games.

"To be honest, I really don't know why more teams don't really make an impact with their special teams," said John Baxter, who is the Bulldogs' resident kicking-game guru.

Actually, Baxter is a bit more than that.

He's Pat Hill's associate head coach and handles wide receivers in addition to creating all those amazing special teams feats which have been a regular feature of Fresno State football for the 11 years Baxter and Hill have shared the gig.

Baxter is also the author of a terrific publication called "Academic Gameplan" -- a how-to guide for student athletes that has boosted grades and graduation rates dramatically in Fresno.

Baxter's academic road map has been featured in "Sports Illustrated," documented on national TV and now is routinely copied by other schools.

Perhaps Baxter's cerebral approach to football -- in addition to the college educational experience -- has something to do with Fresno State's almost endless string of success in the kicking game.

To put it another way: John's just a smart cookie.

"The things we've done with our kicking, our coverages and our return game are right there on tape for people to see," Baxter said.

But then he grinned and added: "Maybe not everybody sees what we see."

Certainly anyone can read the numbers.

Once again this season, Baxter has opponents terrified every time Clifton Smith touches a punt (five career

TD returns) or they're waiting for A.J. Jefferson to get his paws on a kickoff.

Jefferson leads the nation with a 36.1-yard average on 19 kick returns.

Saturday against Utah State, A. J. opened the game with a 65-yarder to set up Fresno State's first TD and then -- after the Aggies had drawn within 31-17 in the third quarter -- Jefferson burst 88 yards to score on the ensuing kickoff.

"Kick returns are a lot like a golf swing," Baxter said, offering an analogy you don't hear every day. "There should be a reflex action when the ball and the blockers get to the (right) spot at the right time.

"Like in golf, you need your hands and body and everything to reach impact just at the right moment, and then there's the explosion off the club."

Perhaps Jefferson should be yelling: "Fore!"

Something else fascinating about Baxter's bunch is that they're good at all phases of kicking, coverage and returns.

Utah State got stung with the hat trick in the Dogs' 38-27 victory.

In addition to Jefferson's dashes, place-kicker Clint Stitser hammered a 52-yard field goal and freshman linebacker Ben Jacobs blocked an Aggie field goal try.

Just as a bonus, Fresno State totally shut down Utah State's special teams superstar,

Kevin Robinson, with basically nothing.

Should we be surprised?

Baxter's Dogs have blocked 74 kicks under his watch, led the nation in fewest punt return yards allowed in back-to-back seasons (2004-05) and basically run wild year after year on kick returns.

Close your eyes and think Bernard Berrian.

There you go.

Perhaps Baxter truly grasps some secret to special teams play he isn't sharing, or maybe he's sincere about being puzzled why other teams don't seem to get it.

Either way, the only explanation he can offer for the huge gulf between the Bulldogs and almost everyone else in college football is that he and Hill always have believed in two critical things.

First, they use starters on special teams rather than letting stars rest their rear ends during kicks.

They consider the kicking game far too important to throw what amounts to a second unit onto the field just for the heck of it.

"The other thing," Baxter said, "is that we not only use our best guys and coach 'em hard at special teams, we practice it.

"We're not talking about just walk-throughs, either. We do live kicking drills and there's no question we're taking it seriously -- and so are the players."

When the team is seriously nicked with injuries or simply thin at key positions, Hill and Baxter concede that their faith in special teams poses a dilemma.

"What happens is that you've got the same guys, your regulars, getting all the reps in practice," Hill said. "When you get a situation like this year -- we're banged-up worse than any team I've ever coached -- that can mean some weary legs."

Nonetheless, there will be no foot off the pedal.

"Special teams have won us a lot of football games," Baxter said. "We've taken advantage of something we do better than almost anyone else.

"Would we ever want to back off on something like that?"

You don't need Baxter's textbook to answer that one.

Steve Cameron is the Sun-Star sports editor. He can be reached at scameron@mercedsun-star.com">scameron@mercedsun-star.com.

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