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December 30, 2012

Special teams key; Sunday bowl notes









DALLAS - The talk, per usual, has been about high-powered offenses and potentially potent run-stopping defenses.

Oklahoma State and Purdue have their studs on those high-profile units. A 1,000-yard rusher. A 1,000-yard receiver. An All-American defensive tackle. All-league selections aplenty.

But both teams also have special teamers.

The Cowboys' Quinn Sharp is one of the nation's top kickers and punters, landing All-America honors from the American Football Coaches Association and the Walter Camp Foundation.

He has led the country the last three seasons in touchbacks on kickoffs - he has 71 this season. He has made 25 field goals this season, a nation-leading average of 2.08 per game. He's averaging 45.8 yards per punt, which would rank No. 7 in the country if he had enough to qualify.

Cody Webster has seen all those statistics.

And he's itching to show what he's got.

Purdue's punter is averaging 42.5 yards per punt (No. 32 in FBS), has dropped 29 inside the 20-yard line and has 20 fair catches. Opponents average 7.46 yards per return, which ranks No. 50 in the country. (Oklahoma State ranks No. 113 out of 120 FBS schools in punt return defense.)

"I feel like whenever a running back comes into the game and tries to size up the other running back, I feel like it's the same for the punter position. I don't know about other punters, but I like to compare my stats to his and see where I stand with him and see what they're saying about him," Webster said after Sunday's practice at SMU.

Webster realizes how important his role will be on Tuesday.

Purdue doesn't want to give Oklahoma State's offense good field position, and Webster and his coverage team must do their part. Webster will need some booming kicks but also ones with good hang time, he said.

Webster said the team figured percentages earlier in the season about how often teams produce points when they start drives inside the 20. He said it was only about 19 percent of the time.

"We always hang out hat on the longer yards they have to go is the less chance they have to score," Webster said. "That's something to always keep in the back of your mind."

New role
When Purdue likely starts the Heart of Dallas Bowl in the nickel package to counter Oklahoma State's spread, pass-heavy offense, Normondo Harris doesn't expect to be on the field.

Frankie Williams will be the extra defensive back, allowing Ricardo Allen to slide over to the nickel role and cover the Cowboys' go-to receiver in the slot.

Maybe Harris will get snaps to relieve Williams as a backup nickel. Maybe he'll find his way onto the field as the dime back, though Anthony Brown had that role in Sunday's practice at SMU.

It seems so long ago that Harris was snatching a pair of interceptions in the Boilermakers' makeshift spring game. Then, many expected Harris to be a pivotal piece to Purdue's defense.

But he sprained a knee in training camp and struggled to recover. Now, he says he feels healthy, but having limited practice time throughout the season allowed Brown and other players at points to pass him on the depth chart.

"This has been the hardest year of my life," Harris said after Sunday's practice. "I never missed a game due to an injury and I missed six or seven this year. I just played a few snaps in the last game. It's been really hard to stay motivated and keep going.

"It stinks."

But Harris insists he will be ready against Oklahoma State when he's called on, saying he'll be a "good reliever."

And regardless if he plays, he's confident in his teammates' ability to slow down a potentially potent passing attack.

"They throw the ball and catch it. I don't think they're anything special," Harris said. "If we play within our system, they won't get those catches. That's all I'm going to say."

Keeping curfew
Interim coach Patrick Higgins said players have been "really good" abiding by the team's curfew.

Though he didn't give specific times, he said Sunday's curfew is earlier than Saturday and that Monday's will be even earlier.

"(Monday) once meetings are done, they're in their rooms," he said. "Thank you, good Lord, but we haven't had any problems so far and they've handled the situation very well."

Practice perspective
Though Higgins said on Saturday that starting linebacker Sean Robinson was "probable" for the game, Robinson was limited in Sunday's practice.

Purdue's No. 1 defense mostly played in the nickel, which also could have kept Robinson on the sidelines instead of his progress from a foot/ankle injury. The linebackers in the starting defense were Will Lucas and Joe Gilliam, and Frankie Williams was the extra defensive back.

Defensive tackle Brandon Taylor, who missed the last four games of the season with a left high ankle sprain, practiced some on Sunday. He had a thick brace on the ankle, but he got reps with the second-team unit and lined up alongside starters Kawann Short and Bruce Gaston in a drill that had five defensive linemen.

Still, Higgins said Taylor is a "game-time" decision.

Purdue practiced some trick plays on Sunday, but it's likely Short lining up at receiver and running a route wasn't one of them.

Short jumped into a receiver/quarterback drill and was covered by another Purdue receiver. The pass was a shade long on Short's go route, and he got a hand on it before crashing to the ground. On his way running back to the defensive line, Short said he was held and a flag should have been thrown.

The Boilermakers used SMU's practice field on Sunday because Higgins said he wanted to practice on grass, a "similar" surface to the Cotton Bowl.




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