The Eastern Kentucky University coach staff has every reason to expect very big things from its special teams units this season.

The Colonels return solid, proven starters at almost every position — including kicker, punter, holder, snapper and both kick and punt returner — and have added a standout freshman who could be an important contributor.

“I think we have a lot of potential for the special teams unit and we need to tap into that,” EKU coach Danny Hope said.

The expectations certainly should be lofty for a unit with this much experience. The Colonels’ two kickers, Taylor Long and Benton Kuszmaul, along with holder Zach Denton and long snapper Brad Willoughby have started every game the past two seasons and kick returner Davin Walker was a Second-Team All-Ohio Valley Conference selection as a specialist last year.

EKU’s other two kick/punt returners — Bobby Washington and Garnett Phelps — also saw plenty of action in 2006.

“We are very fortunate to have a lot of guys back,” EKU special teams assistant J.B. Gibboney said. “They are an experienced group. So it should be a very strong part of our team. That should help push us over the top in close games.”

The kicking game had an impact, both positive and negative, in several games last season, and the coaching staff is hoping some competition will make all their kickers better.

Long, a 5-foot-11, 172-pound junior, struggled at times last season, missing five of his first eight field goal attempts, but finished the season strong. He hit a game-winning field goal in the final seconds against UT-Martin and did not miss a kick from inside 30 yards.

“He started off a little slow, but he hit five of his last seven kicks,” Gibboney said of Long. “A lot of people think he had a really mediocre year — which number-wise he did (nine-of-17 on field goals) — but a lot of his misses were from 40-plus yards. Those are lower percentage kicks that he missed. We are fully confident in what he can do.”

Kuszmaul, a 6-foot-2, 192-pound senior punter, improved his technique dramatically last season, but he still averaged just 36.8 yards a kick — which was sixth in the OVC and almost identical to his statistical performance as a sophomore (36.7 yards a kick).

“We expect great things out of him this year,” Gibboney said of Kuszmaul. “He’s been here for three years. He has plenty of experience. There’s no reason why he shouldn’t be able to perform. In the past his problem has been consistency and he’s done really well during camp. Again, the competition has helped him out.”

That competition has come from Logan O’Connor. The 6-foot, 190-pound freshman was an all-state selection in Tennessee and was runner-up for Mr. Football (as a specialist).

O’Connor was ranked No. 7 nationally by last year and as expected came into training camp and immediately challenged for a starting spot at both placekicker and punter.

“The kid has got a lot of potential,” Gibboney said. “He’s got a strong leg. He needs some work technique-wise to become more consistent, but he’s got a ton of potential.”

O’Connor will handle the kickoff duties in the season opener Saturday against Kentucky and his presence has certainly helped raise the performance level of both Long and Kuszmaul while providing the Colonels with some much-needed depth.

“The consistency has gotten a lot better now that there is some competition,” Gibboney said. “All it does is breed success.”

Denton, a 5-foot-11, 200-pound junior holder, and Willoughby, 5-foot-11, 214-pound junior long snapper, have provided the Colonels with very consistent performances the past two seasons.

Denton, who is also a starting defensive back, has emerged as a real standout on special teams.

“Zach is an exceptional holder,” Gibboney said. “He’s got great hands and he doesn’t get rattled in tough situations. He was also a quarterback, so we can run the fake if we want.”

Willoughby was a bit of a question mark when he took over as EKU’s starting long snapper as a freshman, but he has improved his technique and become a much better blocker.

The Colonels have had some of the best kick/punter returners in the league the past few years and last season was no exception.

Walker, a 5-foot-10, 162-pound junior, ranked 11th nationally in kick returns with a 25.43 yard average. He had a record-tying 100-yard return for a score against Murray State and also had a 81-yard return against Western Kentucky.

Phelps a 5-foot-10, 172-pound sophomore, and Bobby Washington, a 6-foot, 215 senior, handled most of the punt returns last year and helped the Colonels to a 9.9 yard average per return — second best in the OVC.

“A lot of that is raw talent,” Gibboney said of the EKU punt/kick returners. “You can only teach so much, then the kid has to do it on his own. But, everybody we’ve put back there we’ve had a lot of success with.”

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