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'A third of the game': Blue Hawks showcase speed on special teams

Every week, Dickinson State head coach Pete Stanton is required to send his two-deep roster to his opponent six days before their matchup. On that sheet are 46 names, two for each position, with starters in bold. While it includes kicker Cody Joh...

Every week, Dickinson State head coach Pete Stanton is required to send his two-deep roster to his opponent six days before their matchup.

On that sheet are 46 names, two for each position, with starters in bold. While it includes kicker Cody Johnson, one punt returner in Cain Boschee and a kick returner in Roderick Ashford, it isn't required to list all the men on special teams. Although the players on special teams don't fall under the traditional definition of offensive or defensive "starters," Stanton still considers them that.

"I think we have a lot of guys that are pretty good players that play special teams for us that might be our fifth (defensive) back or fifth linebacker or sixth D-back. We really emphasize that," Stanton said. "We also put starters on our special teams. It's obviously a third of the game and we have to play well on that and I think that makes a big difference."

Most players participate in more than one special teams scenario, such as true freshman Corbin Wood.

"Everyone is a lot faster for sure. Nothing new though, just back there. I've done it before in the past," Wood said of returning in college compared to high school. "If I'm behind the 10, I usually don't want the ball to go over my head. Everyone is supposed to block a certain way or a certain direction and I'm supposed to hit that hole. But if I see anything open I try to hit that hole and try to do the best I can."

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Wood has a pair of punt returns, as well as a pair of kick returns, averaging 34.5 yards.

Kick returns are the weakest area for the Blue Hawks, as they have chosen to return a kick just 15 times through seven games this season, accumulating 274 return yards. Meanwhile, conference rival Presentation College has elected to return 40 times, earning 785 return yards over seven games.

Last year, kick returns fell to senior Dylan Skabo and freshman Javonte Oliphant, two players who were confident in returning the football, rather than calling a fair catch.

Skabo returned the ball 15 times, while Oliphant ran 11 times, combining for 610 return yards.

This year, the job of kick return has fallen to junior running back Roderick Ashford and freshmen Cleet Wrzesinski and Wood.

While Ashford has a team-high six returns, Wood and Wrzesinski have the farthest returns on the year with 40- and 31-yard dashes to their name.

"They're both very explosive," Stanton said of the young players. "You look at Cleet, he's an All-American in track and field and has great speed. Corbin was a track guy and a high school football player and he's just got a good feel. We just got to get him going a little bit."

Over the last five games combined, Dickinson State holds their opponent to the 26½ yard line on punts and kickoffs. Against Mayville State this past weekend, the first three kickoffs were touchbacks, and the next put the Comets at their own 23-yard line. By the end of the game, their average field position was their own 24½ yard line.

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While much of the success behind kickoffs and punts falls on Johnson, the junior kicker out of Sidney, Mont., the rest of the Blue Hawks squad plays a role in getting to the ball carrier as quickly as possible, forcing them to fair catch, or limit their return yards.

"We really prepare for it and prepare for what they're doing," Stanton said. "We spend a lot of time on it. Every practice on Tuesday, before we start practice it's special teams drills, emphasis and scheme. We meet as a group a couple times and make sure guys are aware of how well we have to do in that area."

Johnson averages 33.9 yards over 19 punts on the season. Senior Seth Moerkerke, who has punted 12 times this fall, averages 31.5 yards.

Meanwhile, over the last five games, the Blue Hawks average field position following a kick or punt is the 31½ yard line.

Chris Gartner, a sophomore linebacker, plays a role in kickoff and punt return and he said each player knowing and executing their role is the biggest key to a successful kickoff.

"On kickoff, I'm on the spill side, so my role is to stay on my side of returner, but also pinch down and make sure that I'm accounting for their lead blockers and their wedge and keeping the ball from being ran north and south," he said.

Gartner was crowned homecoming king during halftime of the game against Mayville State.

"It's a great honor anytime that you're recognized by your peers," Gartner said. "It means a lot to me to be recognized. Being nominated by the Ag Club, I got to give them a shoutout. They make it really fun to be a part of the club."

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Although they may not spend as much time on the field as offense and defense, special teams is a large part of any win, although Wood couldn't pin down a percentage

"Probably a lot of it, I'm not too sure," he said. "If you get a kick return taken back on you, that's a big punch to the gut. It really tears a team down when you do good on special teams."

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