Griz special teams feature a few veteran returners, along with young kickers

Senior RB/Punter Caleb Walden

Senior RB/Punter Caleb Walden

Aug. 25, 2012

(Final part of a 7-part series on the Griz offense, defense, and special teams)

It is said that learning on the job it the best way to gain experience. Well, there's no doubt that's the dilemma that faces The University of Montana Grizzly football team in their kicking game in the 2012 season.

Montana lost their place-kicker and punter to graduation, and last season they we're one of the best in the nation at those two spots - and both of those duties were handled by one player - Brody McKnight, and he was very proficient in both areas.

Last season McKnight tied for sixth in the nation in field goals made per game (1.50) and he was eighth in the country in punting, averaging 42.75 yards a game. He ended his outstanding career making 58-of-78 (67.5) of his field goals and is third in career scoring with 387 points. He served as UM's place-kicker the past two seasons.

This season those roles will more-than-likely be filled by two players, and make that two young players who have never played in a college football game.

The leading candidates for those jobs are two redshirt freshmen, Chris Lider (6-1, 200, from Bellevue, Wash.) and Stephen Shaw (6-3, 235, from Boise, Idaho). Both players participated in spring drills, and both displayed good potential, but both were also somewhat inconsistent.

Also competing for the starting kicking berth is freshman Harrison Greenberg, a 5-8, 155-pounder from Lake Oswego, Oregon. Senior running back Caleb Walden (5-9, 198, from Boise, Idaho) is the number two punter, and Lider is also an option in the punting game.

First-year special teams and tight ends coach Kefense Hynson said both of his young protegees are making very good progress.



"Stephen Shaw is doing a really good job of punting the ball," said Hynson, who was an honorable mention All-America defensive back as a senior at Willamette College. "He's speeded up his operation and still has to improve in that area, but's he been really good so far. He's had good hang time on his ball and has had great location. I had Chris' older brother Josh (Lider) at Western Washington and he was a very good punter, so I know it's in his genes to do that.

"In terms of the kicking game we are still open for competition a little bit," Hynson continued. "Chris Lider, if we had to play tomorrow would be the guy (place-kicker). "My man Greenberg has been doing a good job. He's a true freshman and kind of figuring it out, but he has a strong leg and a promising future.

"Caleb is on all of our special teams and he's playing a little running back, and so he's the guy who is just a good overall football player, who we could put in the game if we needed him to punt," Hynson said.

Senior halfback Peter Nguyen has proven over the past three seasons that he is more-than-capable as a returner, and ranked among Montana's all-time career leaders in kickoff and punt return yards. Jabin Sambrano handled most of the return chores a year ago, but Nguyen averaged 23.8 yards on kickoff returns and 9.6 in punt returns in limited action.

Sophomore halfback Jordan Canada, senior halfback Dan Moore, and freshman wide receiver Chase Naccarato will also return kicks. Sophomore cornerback Josh Dennard and Naccarato could see action in the punt return game.

"For punt returns, Peter will be the first guy up for that," Hynson said. "He's caught a bunch and has not put one on the ground yet in fall camp. He's an elusive guy with the ball in his hands, and he rushed for a lot of yards (835) last year, so you know what he can do when he has the ball. It will be another opportunity to get him the ball.

"Peter will also be a guy who returns kicks, along with Jordan Canada," Hynson said. "Jordan is a swift, smooth runner and it doesn't look like he's moving very fast, but he's gobbling up yards and he'll make you miss. I am really excited about him.

"I like to get running backs in there to return kicks, and Dan Moore in another guy who will be back there, and he's a thicker, strong, hard-nosed guy, who will run though a bunch of arm tackles on the return team," Hynson said. "He can also be a lead blocker back there for us in some of our schemes.

"We've got a young freshman in Chase Naccarato who is also a shifty runner, and he's fast and tough," Hynson said. "He's a little small in stature, but he's strong and tough, and good with the ball in his hand. Josh (Dennard) will also get some reps as a punt and kickoff returner. I think we've got a lot of capable guys, and we're as deep as I've ever seen a team as far as returners - punts and kickoffs."

Senior center Brett Brauer serves as the Grizzlies' short snapper, while junior linebacker Jordan Tripp handles the deep snaps. Senior wide receiver Sam Gratton is UM's holder in field and PAT attempts.

"Jordan is an excellent deep snapper, who has a bright feature doing that, and obviously he's an outstanding defensive football player as well," Hynson said. "Brauer has embraced the role as our short snapper and has been consistent, which is very important in that operation, as are the holder and kicker. I feel good about that area too."

GRIZ CAPTAINS CHOSEN: The team picked their captains and announced them prior to practice on Friday (Aug. 24). The 2012 Griz captains:

OFFENSE: #28-Peter Nguyen, Senior Running Back/Returner, Seattle, Wash.

DEFENSE: #37-Jordan Tripp, Junior Linebacker, Missoula, Mont.

SPECIAL TEAMS: #35-Dan Moore, Senior, RB, Tucson, Ariz. And #41-Caleb Walden, Senior, Running Back/Punter, Boise, Idaho.

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