NCCU's Mendenhall, Wilkins put the 'special' into special teams
Special teams wouldn’t be all that special if the little guys returning the kicks scored touchdowns just about every time they touched the football.
Yet it’s almost as if N.C. Central’s special teams should be written in as part of the Eagles’ offense.
“Statistically, you could almost say that,” NCCU special teams coordinator Mike Mendenhall said. “Yeah, we are that dangerous, I think, where we are at this point.”
NCCU has scored special teams touchdowns four weeks straight, the most recent one earning Eagles redshirt sophomore return man Adrian Wilkins his third honor this season for special teams player of the week in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.
“Adrian’s a special, special player. He’s very talented in what he does. He has a great skill set,” NCCU interim coach Dwayne Foster said. “When he gets back there for a kickoff return or a punt return, we’re anxious to see the things that he does when he gets the football in his hands.”
Wilkins (5-8, 170) is the only NCAA Division I football player to have returned three kickoffs for touchdowns this season. That includes both Football Championship Subdivision where NCCU competes and the higher-level Football Bowl Subdivision.
This season, Wilkins has returned two punts for touchdowns. He needs to score on either a punt or a kickoff return to tie the FCS record of six kicks returned for touchdowns in a season.
There’s no denying Wilkins is a special individual. That’s clear.
But Wilkins has done what he’s done because of special teams.
“When the other guys have an opportunity to block for him, they’re excited to do that,” Foster said. “They know he doesn’t need a whole lot of space to make something happen.”
The mastermind behind it all is Mendenhall, who became the Eagles’ special teams coordinator in 2012.
Over the past two seasons, NCCU’s special teams have scored 12 touchdowns. No other FCS school can match that.
Mendenhall said all he’s done is design a basic return scheme and plugged in the right players to carry it out.
“The scheme is simple,” Mendenhall said. “It allows for your athletes, for your football players you have on the field, to play fast.”
That goes for punts, punt returns, kickoffs, the whole gamut of special teams, Mendenhall said.
“The scheme works, especially on kickoff returns,” Mendenhall said. “It’s about technique. It’s about timing, spacing, in a sense. And when that returner hits that hole, it’s open once he hits it.”
This past Saturday during NCCU’s road loss against Hampton, Wilkins broke loose on the opening kickoff, returning it 96 yards for a touchdown.
“You need a guy back there that can do it, a guy that can make a guy miss, in most cases. And Adrian can do that,” Mendenhall said. “You need a guy that can finish, and Adrian does both.”
Wilkins, from Forest City, is fast. Real fast. And he’s got moves.
But Wilkins still needs teammates like senior Michael Crudup to run a little interference for him.
“I would love to have the ball in my hands,” said Crudup, a reserve wide receiver. “But everybody in a family has their role.”
Wilkins and senior Thomas Dixon, both wide receivers, are NCCU’s top options for returning kicks. Everybody on the team understands that and accepts it, Crudup said. There’s no jealousy but instead a desire among Eagles to be on the field to help two special players make special plays.
That’s special teams, Crudup said.
NCCU’s special teams aren’t intermission acts by so-called scrubs who get on the field merely to exchange the ball for the offensive and defensive starters. No, some of NCCU’s starters put in work on special teams.
“We need our best guys out there,” said Crudup said.
Crudup is on NCCU’s kickoff and punt teams, too.
Players on special teams study film as a unit, just like the guys on offense and defense. It’s no accident when Wilkins and Dixon catch a kick and wind up in the end zone. Those are scripted plays. There’s room for a maestro like Dixon to improvise. But Mendenhall, the conductor, has the Eagles flying around by design.
The Theo Livingtons, the Kevin Statons, the other Eagles who welcome the extra practice reps associated with covering, carrying and converting kicks, that’s special teams.
“We’ve got guys that want to put in extra work,” Mendenhall said. “It’s a mindset.”