West’s Tyler Kennedy
MOUNT ULLA — Feisty assistant coach Durwood Bynum is West Rowan’s special-teams guru, and he broke down the film of Davie County’s opening game against Page with a mixture of frowns and smiles.
“You could see right away that Davie’s punter (John Young) is not the average high school punter,” Bynum said. “Davie has good special teams, and their kid kicks the heck out of the ball. But the way he booms it, we knew he might out-kick his coverage. We were going to have a chance for some returns.”
It was an emotional Friday at West. Davie, neighbor and serious rival, is in Mount Ulla, and the Falcons had been stunned by the news that Post sports editor Ronnie Gallagher, the father of a former teammate and a classmate, had died suddenly. P.A. man/basketball coach Mike Gurley’s pregame tribute to Gallagher had a high percentage of the stadium in tears.
Here’s how the game progressed: West defensive lineman Justin Evans blows up Davie’s first series, the War Eagles go three-and-out at their 32, John Young trots out to punt, and Bynum claps his hands in anticipation.
Cornerback Tyler Kennedy, with a small piece of tape attached to the back of his light blue helmet that reads “RONZ” drops back deep for West. He is confident because he ran back a punt for a TD against Davie in 2012. Kennedy is not big at first glance, but long hours in the weight room have made him powerful in the shoulders and upper body. Not only is he quick and fearless, he can break tackles.
Young’s punt is a soaring thing of beauty. Kennedy retreats to his 30 to gather it in. West’s patented return wall forms, and white jerseys topple into green grass.
“Nick Collins made the block I needed,” Kennedy explained.
Raywkon Torrence, even faster than Kennedy, leads Kennedy on a sprint around the wall toward the sideline, and suddenly Kennedy is gone. West leads 6-0.
“Textbook return,” Bynum said. “We had perfect spacing. Our execution was just the way we drew it up.”
Kennedy is just getting started. Davie answers Kennedy’s quick TD, but Kennedy returns the kickoff all the way to the Davie 11 to set up a Zack Russell field goal.
In the third quarter of the seesaw contest, Kennedy fields a punt at his 17 and roars 44 yards with it to the Davie 39.
“He zigged where he should’ve zagged,” West coach Scott Young said with a smile. “He could’ve gotten another 20 yards.”
When the night is done, Kennedy has topped 200 return yards and West has rallied for a 31-27 victory. The turning point is West safety Najee Tucker’s stop of Davie phenom Cade Carney on a fourth-and-2 in Davie territory early in the fourth quarter when Davie had the lead, A reason Davie tried to get those 2 yards instead of punting was Davie coach Devore Holman couldn’t bear the thought of Kennedy getting his hands on the ball again.
“They beat us on special teams,” Holman said. “West got field position with their special teams.”
Everyone works on special teams, but West works on them more often and more efficiently than most.
“There are three phases to this game,” Kennedy said. “And we put just as much emphasis on special teams as we do on offense and defense. Every single day.”
Kennedy actually returned six punts for touchdowns in 2012, although three got called back by flags. In West’s opening loss at Mooresville, Kennedy had a spectacular return that may have saved the Falcons, but a block-in-the-back negated it.
“We had to have a teaching lesson about the difference between blocking people from the front and the back,” Coach Young joked. “If you see eyes, nose, facemask — well, that’s the front of a man. You see a butt and no eyes — that’s his back.”
West’s mastery of the punt return is easy to document. Believe it or not, Kennedy’s return on Friday was the Falcons’ 14th punt-return TD in the last four seasons. Besides Kennedy’s three TDs that counted in 2012, Trey Cuthbertson had four in 2011, and Trey Mashore and Eric Cowan combined for six in 2010.
“I love special teams, our kids are physical on special teams, and I think our special teams bring excitement to the fans,” Bynum said. “ All our kids want to play on special teams.”
Kennedy is honored to be the latest in the long line of exciting West return men, but he’s staying humble.
“Looking back at Friday’s game, I honestly don’t think I did anything special,” he said. “I did what I was supposed to do and what I’ve been coached to do. All the guys blocking for me did their jobs, and I did mine.”