Friday not only marked move-in day on the Missouri State campus, but another landmark for the Bears football squad—the final day of two-a-days. The Bears spent a good deal of time working on two and four-minute situations on both sides of the ball in their two-hour morning practice at Plaster Field heading into their second scrimmage of the fall camp on Saturday.
Special teams were the focus of Friday’s afternoon practice, with the Bears returning a host of experienced performers at a number of key spots. MSU will have no shortage of experienced punt and kick returners this fall, returning six of the eight players who fielded kickoffs last season and three of its four punt returners.
“We probably have six to eight guys back there, big bodies who can run through tackles,” Montgomery said. “We have Julian Burton, Cedric Miller, the freshman from Memphis, some guys that can really go and we’re excited about that.”
Topping the list of return candidates is Julian Burton who had a team-high 10 punt returns (7.3) and notched 17 kick returns (18.8) as a redshirt freshman in 2011. Burton has a career kickoff return average of 21.9, including a 54-yarder as a short-season freshman in 2010.
Vernon Scott had a team-high 18 kickoff returns last season, while Caleb Schaffitzel closed out the 2011 season with 5 kickoff returns late in the year with a 33.6 average and season-high 75 yard effort at Youngstown State. Sybhrian Berry (8.4 punt return average and 16.7 kickoff return average) also figures to be in the mix.
Long-snapping duty will come down to the battle between returning squadman Hunter Hays, who inherited that role this spring from graduated senior Kaleb Mueller, and incoming freshman Colby Wickwar, who has been a pleasant surprise in fall camp, Montgomery says.
Another new face, Chris Sullens, is the summer favorite to be the club’s top punter this season after he averaged 38.0 yards per punt on 11 attempts this spring. Filling the shoes of four-year starter Jordan Chiles won’t be easy, but junior kicker Austin Witmer has been Chiles’ understudy the past two seasons and can step in if necessary.
Witmer averaged 61.9 yards per kickoff last season (43 attempts), was 25-for-26 on extra points and is 11-for-19 in his career in field goal kicking. His role as the club’s top place kicker seems eminent, and his confidence will only boosted this fall with a solid effort in spring drills. Sophomore transfer Marcelo Bonani has also competed well in fall camp, Montgomery added.
No matter who you’re talking about on special teams, it all comes down to consistency, Montgomery says.
“Consistency has kind of been the word of camp for this group. They have the ability and if they can be consistent, we’ll be okay.”
Players not involved in special teams work spent part of Friday afternoon helping other students move in to their residence halls.
The Bears will conduct their second scrimmage of the preseason Saturday at 9:15 a.m., at Plaster Field. The event, which is free and open to the public, was originally scheduled for 10:15 a.m. The scrimmage will mark the Bears’ 20th preseason practice and officially conclude fall camp, which began on Aug. 2.