August 28, 2009

Countdown to kickoff: No.8 - Justin Tucker

Name: Justin Tucker

Position: Kicker

Classification: Sophomore

Prep credentials: The former Austin Westlake star was a three-star prospect (5.5) who was ranked as the nation's No.4 kicker (behind Quinn Sharp, Jeff Locke and Ben Buchanan[/db]) by Rivals. Tucker was ranked as the state's No.1 kicker and the No.77 overall prospect by Lone Star Recruiting.

Click here to see Tucker's high school film

2008 stats: Tucker played in all 13 games last season, handling the starting kickoff duties, along with part-time punting responsibilities. Tucker averaged 45.2 yards per punt on 16 attempts for a total of 633 yards. Tucker's average would have led the Big 12 had he qualified with enough attempts.

2008 Honors: None

Best game in 2008: Tucker was a one-man special teams weapon against Texas Tech in Lubbock last year, as three of his six kickoffs went for touchbacks (68.7 yards per kick). It was also in this game that Tucker took a staring role in the punting department, as he punted four times - landing all four inside the 20-yard line for a 56.8 yard average. Those numbers included a career-high 67-yard effort.

Scouting Report: After so many recruiting busts over the years in the kicking department, Tucker was a breath of fresh air for the special teams in 2008 and his role on the 2009 team could be even more impacting.

There's no question that Tucker's strength on kickoffs represented an upgrade over the previous season, as his 24.5% touchback percentage was seven percent higher than Hunter Lawrence's in 2007 and that's a number that's expected to increase in his sophomore season. After a full season in the Texas strength and conditioning program, Tucker has consistently kicked the ball higher and deeper in practices this fall than he did as a true freshman. If he's able to carry his improvement to game action, the Longhorns might finally have a place-kicker that can rank among the best in the nation in kickoffs.

To give you an idea of the bar Tucker is shooting for, former USC standout and current Dallas Cowboys kicker David Buehler averaged three more yards per kickoff and converted 70.6-percent of his kickoffs into touchbacks last season. As good as Buehler was in 2008, his numbers were worse than Tucker's as a junior (64.6 yards per kick and a 21.4-percent touchback conversion rate). Tucker is headed in the right direction, as his 2009 numbers should be viewed as a starting point.

The other area of the kicking game where Tucker can really help the Longhorns is in the punting game. When the coaching staff implemented Tucker's rugby-style kickoffs into the weekly game plans, the team's ability to control field position was magnified, Tucker's 57.1-percent red-zone conversion rate was significantly higher than John Gold's 33.0-percent, while adding five more yards to the team's average to boot. When Tucker first debuted the rugby-style kicks last season, he always rolled to the right, which left the Longhorns susceptible to the opposition creating a special wrinkle for the play. However, Tucker's worked throughout the off-season on being able to roll/kick in both directions and the Texas staff is comfortable with his ambidextrous kicking abilities. Unless teams can find a tip-off, they'll have to guess their way into breaking these punts up and if they guess wrong, it could create a big-play opportunity for the Longhorns.

Look for Gold to handle the punting duties when the Longhorns are deep into their own territory, but the closer the Longhorns get to mid-field and across the 50-yard line, the more dangerous Tucker becomes as a special teams threat because his kicks are often unreturned as a result of the unpredictable bounces that come with them.

Of course, Tucker's ultimate goal is win the place-kicking duties, but he'll probably concentrate on kickoffs and punting this year, while Lawrence and Ryan Bailey hold down the place-kicking duties this season. Still, Tucker should get some field goal opportunities this season because he'll be the favorite to take over the place-kicking duties in 2010.

The big hope… Tucker becomes one of the nation's top kickoff specialists and his punting proves to be a key piece of the Texas special teams weaponry.

The big worry… Tucker's improvements on kickoffs in the off-season isn't reflected in game action.

Did you know? Tucker's a member of the Athletics Director's Honor Roll and is very active in UT's community service program.

NFL Scouting report: "Did you just ask me about a sophomore kicker? I'm going to have to pass on that one. I'm not ready to answer that (about 15 seconds of laughter follows)."

The bottom line: The Longhorns hit a home run with the recruitment of Tucker because he is emerging as one of the top special teams players in the Big 12. The combination of his skill on kickoffs and punts make him an underrated big-play provider on this team. If football is all about field position, then Tucker has a chance to perform like a team MVP.

No.9 - Lamarr Houston
No.10 - Dan Buckner
No.11 - Eddie Jones
No.12 - Tre Newton
No.13 - Emmanuel Acho
No.14 - John Chiles
No.15 - Kheeston Randall
No.16 - David Snow
No.17 - Curtis Brown
No.18 - Malcolm Williams
No.19 - Keenan Robinson
No.20 - Vondrell McGee
No.21 - Blake Gideon
No.22 - Adam Ulatoski
No.23 - Ben Alexander
No.24 - James Kirkendoll
No.25 - Jared Norton

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