As JMU football’s 2019 media day was getting underway, head coach Curt Cignetti stepped to the lectern to conduct a press conference. Junior punter Harry O’Kelly had another idea and jokingly asked his coach if he needed help. Cignetti stepped aside and asked if the Australian would like to take over. Enter O’Kelly.
O’Kelly’s time in front of the cameras lasted around five seconds, but the smiles glued to both Cignetti and O’Kelly’s face served as a microcosm for the Dukes’ special teams unit and their passion for the game.
“We’re always together,” O’Kelly said. “We lift together; we room together when we’re traveling; we’re on bus three, so we’re always on the same bus together. When you spend so much time with a group of people, you have a good relationship with them.”
JMU’s specialists have proven recently how much of an impact they have on every game. In 2017, O’Kelly — a freshman at the time — ran for 30 yards and completed a fourth-down conversion.
Later that same season, redshirt junior kicker Ethan Ratke nailed a 46-yard field goal to lift JMU over Weber State in the FCS quarterfinals. The Dukes would go on to make their second consecutive National Championship appearance.
A year before, Tyler Gray made a career-long 45-yard kick that proved to be the game-winner against North Dakota State. In a variety of ways, the Dukes’ specialists have been the difference in the program’s rise to the top of the FCS.
This year, Cignetti expects his special teams unit to be a component in each victory. With O’Kelly being named to the FCS Punter of the Year watchlist, the Dukes are building a notable specialists room.
“I’ve really been impressed with Ethan Ratke,” Cignetti said. “Kyle Davis has done a great job, as well as Harry [O’Kelly] punting the ball. Our guys really give great effort on special teams. I’m really pleased with the effort on the kickoff team … It needs to be a winning edge.”
In his freshman year, Ratke converted 77.78% of his field goals and had one attempt blocked. As a sophomore, he increased that mark to 89.47% and had none of his kicks blocked.
One of the toughest aspects of the special teams game is dealing with pressure. In many games, the outcome of the game comes down to the kicker or punter. As seen with Michigan State vs. Michigan in 2015, even a routine punt can define a season. Ratke said what helps him handle pressure is practicing as many scenarios as possible that helps kickers adjust to high-pressure situations.
“The biggest thing is coming out in practice and doing everything we can to be the best we can be,” Ratke said. “When dealing with expectations and pressure, it’s our job, and we just get used to it.”
When the game comes down to the final kick, it’s a serious matter for the special teams group. What helps them be serious is having fun and keeping an upbeat mentality.
“We have a lot of fun and a lot more downtime than everybody else,” Ratke said. “When it comes down to doing our job, we’re all very, very serious with what we have to do. We’re all really dedicated and love what we do.”
It’s hard to find the specialists without smiles on their faces. Being the position that holds arguably the most pressure when called upon, a relaxed mentality is crucial to keeping a healthy special teams room. O’Kelly said that’s what separates their position group from others.
“We’re pretty goofy,” O’Kelly said. “That’d be the one word to describe our group.”
The group has discussed replicating special teams units from other schools and making a Twitter account dedicated to following the group of players, but nothing has been set in stone. While they’re one of the more relaxed groups on the team, they prove time and time again they’re one of the most important.
Special teams is a key component in every game. It’s no secret that kickers are called to win games, but that’s not what makes their jobs difficult. Each kickoff determines field position, punts can turn into trick plays, and field goals can swing momentum. The kicking game is taking priority in modern football, and JMU’s specialists have lifted the Dukes to glory on numerous occasions, and they hope to continue to do so in the 2019 season.
Contact Noah Ziegler at email@example.com For more football coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.