Special teams plays have more than once decided the outcome of a college football game. Last-second field goals, clutch punt returns and the occasional run-back on a missed field goal attempt can mean the difference between winning and losing.

At ECU, the Pirates have fielded strong special teams units in the last several years, this one being no different. Just last year, Tyler Snead took the opening kick-off against ECU’s opponent on Saturday, the USF Bulls, and returned it 100 yards for a touchdown. More recently, Snead and the Pirates pulled off a fake field goal that saw the sophomore scamper 31 yards for six points against Georgia State.

In that same game, Blake Proehl broke through on a Panther punt, blocked it and returned it 29 yards for a score. While the Pirates failed to score an offensive touchdown last week on the road, those two special teams touchdowns late allowed them to apply a bit of pressure in an otherwise lopsided game.

Heading into a matchup against USF that, at least on paper, looks fairly even, a big special teams play or two could end up giving one team an advantage.

“It’s going to be a big factor in Saturday night’s game,” ECU head coach Mike Houston said. “With South Florida’s team speed, they have some dynamic ability in the special teams return game also, and in their coverage units. It’s going to be a factor in the game, it is every week. I thought we were very good special teams-wise last week.”

USF running back Johnny Ford has averaged better than 24 yards per kick-off return through three games, including a 70-yarder earlier this season. As a team, the Bulls average 21.5 yards per kick return, while the Pirates have yet to break a return longer than 23 yards.

On that front, however, the booming leg of Jake Verity has resulted in zero kick-off returns against ECU through two games, making them one of only six teams with that distinction at this point in the year.

Verity, who is only six points off becoming ECU’s all-time leading scorer, is one of 23 remaining kickers in the country with a perfect 100% conversion rate on field goals. Despite missing an extra point against Georgia State last week, the senior is the second-most accurate kicker in Pirate history at 78.8%.

“We had a couple of negative plays on kick-off return and a negative play on an extra point, but outside of that, we had a really solid game special teams-wise,” Houston said in regards to last week’s game against Georgia State. “If it’s two evenly matched teams and offenses and defenses play a fairly even game, then special teams could be the deciding factor.”

In a game that comes down to special teams play, Snead will always be of huge benefit to the Pirates. Snead is the team’s primary kick-off and punt returner and currently ranks fourth in the country with 163 all-purpose yards per game.

More than half of those have come in the kick-off return department, an area where the sophomore is averaging 16.9 yards per return across 10 attempts. A huge threat to catch passes also, Snead has turned into something of an all-purpose yards machine.

Since posting 107 all-purpose yards against UCF a year ago, Snead has eclipsed the 100-yard barrier seven of the last eight times. Three times Snead posted 200-plus all-purpose yards, including last week against Georgia State.

The last time ECU and USF squared off, Snead racked up 222 all-purpose yards, 140 of which came in the kick-off return bucket.

Across two games, the Pirates have struggled to consistently move the football on offense. Thirteen times in 30 total possessions ECU has gone three-and-out, or 43.3% of the time, resulting in 11 punts. Both Jonn Young and Luke Larsen have seen reps at punter, and are both averaging 41 yards per boot. 

Over 40 yards of that is net yardage as the Pirates’ coverage unit has limited the opposition to just two punt returns for six yards thus far. It has also helped that three of Young’s punts have traveled within the 20-yard line.

Both ECU and USF sport dynamic athletes that can cause havoc on special teams. Containing those play-makers and limiting what USF does on offense will be big keys to the Pirates leaving Tampa with their first victory of the 2020 season.

Kick-off between the Pirates and Bulls is scheduled for 7 p.m. from Raymond James Stadium. The game can be streamed on ESPN+.

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