Nov. 30, 2012
by Eric Single
Archibald Barnes remembers the first time he made it onto the field as a Vanderbilt football player, as a redshirt freshman in 2009. It wasn't on offense, where he starred as a quarterback in his senior season of high school. It wasn't on defense, where he has emerged as a consistent starter at outside linebacker this year. It was on special teams.
"Somebody told me, `This is your chance to get some TV time and make something happen,'" Barnes recalled of the moment. "`You're playing for your family. We don't get to go home in December or for fall break, so you want to make your family proud, do it on special teams.' I took pride in it ever since, and I think a lot of guys on our team have."
Barnes has earned himself plenty of TV time over the next three years, posting the fourth-most tackles on the team through six games this season. But even as his role on the defense grew, tapping out of his special teams responsibilities was never an option.
It is a mentality that captures the essence of "we-fense," the Vanderbilt coaching staff's term for the culture of team-wide emphasis to special teams, and it is a mentality that has guided the Commodores to a strong first half of 2012 in the all-important third phase of the game.
Head Coach James Franklin brought up "we-fense" for the first time in public during this year's preseason practice, casually, as if the pun was as fundamental to the traditions of Vanderbilt Football as the colors on the uniforms. The origins of we-fense are unclear, but the intent has been emphasized time and again from Franklin's first weeks on campus: The entire team comes together to make special teams the strongest unit on the field by devoting as much attention to it as they do to offense and defense.
"Just like a lot of things, it's probably something I heard or stole from somebody at some point in my career," Franklin said. "But I think `we-fense' really describes what we're trying to do."
"There's really no difference between when the defense gives up a touchdown and when the special teams gives up a touchdown--it's still six points against us," said special teams coach Charles Bankins. "Even some of the returns are designed so if we don't get a touchdown, the ball is on the hash where we want the offense to start."
Vanderbilt is enjoying the fruits of that focus on the details of special teams. Redshirt senior punter Richard Kent is averaging 45.1 yards per punt and has consistently flipped field position to the Commodores' advantage, while junior kicker Carey Spear has made 10 of 13 field goals to rank second in the SEC.
Named to the Ray Guy Award watch list, Kent had nine punts of 50 yards or more through six games and had pinned opponents inside the 20-yard line on 39 percent of his attempts with only two touchbacks.
"They gotta be like the sniper in the military," Bankins said of his specialists. "You can't go out there and run around and do all the stuff that the infantry guys do, but you're a specialized individual, and if you can hone your skill, just like the sniper, you kill the opponent. Even on the field goal, the holder is the sight man, and the kicker is the sniper. [The holder] lines them up, and [the kicker] knocks it down."
Spear has been drawing comparisons to a different caliber of weapon ever since he was designated to handle the team's kickoffs. The Mayfield Village, Ohio, native takes his coverage responsibilities seriously and has delivered punishing hits to a number of return men, usually streaking in from out of the frame to earn his place on post-game highlight reels.
Missouri's T.J. Moe was one of Spear's most recent targets. Spear delivered a big hit to send the Tigers' return man staggering backward several yards on a kickoff return before Moe was brought down by a group of tacklers in the fourth quarter of Vanderbilt's 19-15 victory.
What goes through Spear's mind that lets him hurl himself into the play with a sense of abandon rarely seen in a kicker?
"Just fill the gap and hope for the best," Spear said. "We've got some talented returners in the SEC, everyone we face is going to be tough. I have an assignment, and it's not just kicking the ball. Everyone does their assignment and tries to take care of one another."
The rest of the we-fense feeds off Spear's demeanor, and in recent home games, Vanderbilt's student section has caught on, too. Before lining up each kickoff, Spear points at the referee stationed at the goal line, waiting for the signal to kick off in a power stance that appears from afar to call out opposing returners. While Spear says that's not the case, the student section is satisfied with its own interpretation: Our kicker is coming for you.
"Any person that's a specialist in our program is going to be an athlete who just happens to have a skill of kicking the football," Bankins said. "We expect them to be able to run, catch, throw, do all those things that a regular athlete would do."
To add to that versatility, a few familiar faces have stepped into more prominent roles on special teams. Starting quarterback Jordan Rodgers has taken over holding duties on field goals, which Bankins says gives other teams an extra weapon to think about and be ready to defend.
Combine upperclassmen such as punt returner Jonathan Krause doing their jobs with an influx of talented young players looking to boost their resumes on "we-fense" in the same way Barnes did three years ago, and Vanderbilt has created a unit that can only be described, to use a familiar word, as special.