Senior Specialists Hope to Help Jayhawks Make a Splash
Transition is never an easy thing on the football field. Whether it’s a change in the coaching staff, a change in personnel or a change in equipment, there is always a period of growing pain.
Luckily for the Kansas Jayhawks – a team going through transition in several areas – one spot where the team should not miss a beat is on special teams. Senior kicker Jacob Branstetter and senior punter Alonso Rojas return for their third seasons as full-time starters, giving the Jayhawks two of the top returning players in the Big 12 at each position.
While the tandem took different routes to get to KU, both figure to play an integral role in the team’s success this season.
“Both of them are very mature guys,” said Kansas special teams coach Aaron Stamn. “They give you confidence to put them in any situation and succeed. If they can be consistent for us this year, they’re going to put us in position to win a few games.”
Stamn believes that strong special teams play can make the difference for a team in two to three games in any given season. With the senior duo of Branstetter and Rojas, the Jayhawks should be in good hands in the kicking game.
“I think (having seniors at the kicker and punter position) can help us out incredible amounts,” Branstetter said. “Alonso and I have both been here a long time, and we have an aspect of leadership that we can both put out there. I feel like we get better with age, and we can make a difference in a lot of ballgames.”
Branstetter, a senior kicker from Lawton, Okla., made 13 of 19 field goals attempts last season, including a 57-yarder in the final seconds of the first half against Oklahoma. The kick ranked as the fourth-longest in school history and tied for the second-longest in NCAA Division I football in 2009.
After sitting for most of his freshman season behind veteran Scott Webb, Branstetter took over full-time kicking duties in 2008, and has made 22 of 31 field goal attempts in his career, along with 93 of 96 extra points.
“He’s got a great competitive drive,” Stamn said of his kicker. “Sometimes we have to tell him to take it easy in practice, because it drives him nuts when he makes a mistake. He’s a perfectionist.”
Both Branstetter and Rojas worked extremely hard in the offseason, but know that preseason camp is a time to pace themselves and to not wear themselves out before the regular season begins. Stamn has both players on a limit of 30-40 kicks per practice to keep them sharp, but not overwork them.
“We really try to relax in practice,” Branstetter said. “We do a lot of drills and games to work on the small things, but we try not to kick too much.”
Branstetter’s counterpart – and also his holder this year – says that he focuses on the mental part of his game during the August workouts.
“(Practice) is about building consistency,” Rojas said. “It’s about being able to hit a good ball time after time after time. You build the strength in the offseason, so basically in camp you worry about the 90 percent of the game – which is all mental.”
Unlike his fellow senior special teamer, Rojas took a different route to Lawrence. After coming out of the football hotbed of Killian High School in Miami, Fla., Rojas played his freshman season at Bowling Green before transferring to KU following the 2007 season.
“The transfer process was a little bit difficult, but everything happens for a reason,” Rojas said. “Being able to land here was just a blessing from God. Being able to compete at Kansas and help the team win in this beautiful atmosphere is something I’m truly going to miss (when the year is over).”
The Miami native has averaged 41.0 yards per punt during his two years at KU, including 41.4 yards/punt last season and has been tremendous at pinning opponents inside the 20 – doing that nearly 30 percent of the time.
However, his most memorable moment may have come in 2008 when he made a touchdown-saving tackle in the win over Colorado.
“Alonso has tremendous leg strength,” said Stamn. “He’s also very knowledgeable about the position and will be very important to us this year when it comes to field position.”
Spending a lot of time together in practice and on the sidelines has made the duo close friends. In fact, the tandem has discussed plans to take their careers a different direction once their football days are over.
“We decided that we’re going to try out for the Winter Olympics in either the two-man bobsled or the two-man luge,” Branstetter jokes. “Maybe we’re not good enough to play in the NFL, but we’re going to have to do something competitive next year. It’s kind of a post-football dream.”
Only the kickers could be dreaming of the Winter Olympics during the dog days of summer.