Football

Punter has been key for resurgent North Texas

North Texas is 3-3 under first-year coach Seth Littrell.
North Texas is 3-3 under first-year coach Seth Littrell. AP

North Texas’ Eric Keena has taken it upon himself to set straight the Augusta Sports Council, the Georgia committee charged with selecting the annual winner of the Ray Guy Award, presented to the nation’s best punter.

It’s obvious now that Keena not being on the preseason watch list was an oversight. But when the list is updated later this month with nominees, Keena will almost certainly be included.

The Mean Green’s special teams captain is 12th in the nation in punting with a 45.3-yard average, including a 68-yarder that resembled an airliner taking off as it traveled from foot to peak. That kick had neither the benefit of wind or bounce. The ball took one bounce before the returner fielded it.

Believe it or not, 68 yards is not his career long. He had a 71-yarder in 2014, concluding with merely a big bounce.

North Texas would rather see less of Keena than more, but, of course, there is no perfect Saturday. And punters who can flip field position are worth their weight in gold, particularly for a defense that early in the season needed all the help it could get.

Moreover, Keena’s hang time allows his coverage team to get in place, especially against good return teams.

“I wasn’t too hurt about” the Ray Guy watchlist, said the great-natured Keena, who spent time growing up in Keller, but attended high school in Arizona. “I take pride in punting, I really enjoy going out there, though I wish we didn’t have to. But flipping the field and giving the defense the best field to work with is important.”

North Texas (3-3), coming off its bye week, travels to West Point for a nonconference game with Army (4-2) at 11 a.m. Saturday (CBS Sports Network).

The Mean Green again will need to be good in the punting phase against a good Black Knights team that beats down defenses with itsr flexbone option offense. Its defense has been stingy, forbidding teams to run with a second-in-the-nation 84 yards per game.

Keena has “been exceptional,” North Texas coach Seth Littrell said. “He’s good at what he does. He works at it, excels at it. We have faith in him.

“He’s a great teammate. In order to be a great leader you have to be a great teammate … set the example.”

He has also demonstrated good athleticism, using it two weeks ago to make a game-changing play in a Conference USA upset victory over Middle Tennessee State.

Taking the snap on a fourth-and-9, Keena saw open territory more spacious than 1860s Denton and took off on an undesigned fake. North Texas used the second opportunity to score and seize the momentum. He had successfully run for another first down on a designed fake earlier in the season.

“Earlier in the game [special teams coach Tommy Perry] told me there might be an opportunity to run,” said Keena, who added that he was specifically instructed that that particular situation was not it. Middle Tennessee “took off, so I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to run it.”

He acknowledged that the doghouse would have awaited had he failed.

Forty-five family members and friends who live in nearby New Jersey will be at the West Point game to see Keena’s booming missiles, not to mention a resurgent North Texas football team.

“We’re excited,” Keena said. “We’ve had two weeks to get prepared. We’re going in there with the mindset of taking the win. Special teams have been working to really improve. We’re trying to go into the game playing the best in all three phases. If we do that, we think we should win.”

North Texas at Army

11 a.m. Saturday, CBS Sports Network

Related stories from Fort Worth Star Telegram

  Comments