Running a kickoff back for a touchdown certainly is a better feeling than a poke in the eye. Just ask Ron Carpenter of the Nashville Kats.
Carpenter returned a team-record three kickoffs for touchdowns and also got a finger in the eye during Saturday night's 73-47 road victory over the Oklahoma Wranglers. The Kats, who are still in the running to have one of the four best records in the Arena Football League, raised their record to 8-4. The Wranglers watched their faint playoff hopes disappear as they dropped to 4-8.
"Returning a kickoff for a touchdown is one of the best feelings in the world next to intercepting a pass and running it back for a touchdown," said Carpenter, who also had a team-record 224 kickoff return yards. "Running a kickoff back for a touchdown is a big momentum shifter. It's always good to come right back after the other team has scored and stuff it right back down their throat."
Carpenter had returns of 55 yards and 54 yards. He also returned an onside kick for a touchdown in the final minute of the game. He credited his blockers for making the touchdown runs possible.
"It wasn't hard to pick up my blockers," Carpenter said. "I have good vision of what is happening. Our blockers were doing a great job sealing the other guys off. They made a great shield for me. I felt like I was running in a pocket the whole night. All I had to do was pick a hole and go.
"Even on the returns when I was tackled, it was a matter of one guy getting loose at the last second. Most of the time there was only one person I had to beat. I just told the guys to keep doing what they were doing."
Kats coach Pat Sperduto had decided last week to switch Carpenter to the defensive specialist position instead of having him play the combo role of wide receiver-defensive back. Carpenter had made some key catches this season, but he is far more comfortable on the defensive side of the ball.
"I'm a defensive guy," Carpenter said. "I played receiver this season and made some catches, but it's not my forte. I talked with Pat and we decided it would be better for me to specialize on defense.
"When I was a two-way player I couldn't take every kickoff because I was on the field for every play. Also, when you are playing two positions like that, it takes away your wind and your legs. We are all in agreement that the defensive side of the ball is the best for me and the team."
Sperduto credited assistant coach Brennen Booth, who also serves as the offensive line coach at Cumberland University, for elevating the play of the special teams in the past couple of weeks. The special teams have produced forty-two points in the last two games.
"Brennen has done a great job working with these guys," Sperduto said. "It is easy to teach how to play on special teams, but the players have to execute what they are taught. Our guys executed well. They did a great job of picking up their blocks. They deserve the credit.
"There were a lot of knockdowns. There were a lot of people being hit real hard. Ron had a tunnel and he shot right through it."
Not everything was wonderful as the Kats continued to add to their lengthy injury list. Offensive specialist Tyronne Jones was lost in the second quarter with a groin problem. Quarterback Andy Kelly was forced to the sidelines in the third quarter after dislocating a finger on his throwing hand. Kelly completed six-of-10 passing attempts for 107 yards and three touchdowns.
Quarterback James Brown, used primarily in mop-up situations, completed five-of-six passes for 43 yards and two touchdowns. Sperduto was impressed with what he saw from Brown.
"He executed the plays and that's what we needed him to do," Sperduto said. "All I ever tell James is to be ready and he stepped up to the challenge. He just needs to do it more consistently. This was definitely a step in the right direction."
In addition to Brown, defensive specialist Adrian Lunsford also switched to offense for the second time this season to fill in for Jones. Sperduto is waiting for medical evaluations on Kelly and Jones; wide receiver-defensive back Jarrick Hillery who continued to have shoulder problems; Cory Fleming, the team leader in receptions against Oklahoma, who has an ankle injury; and defensive specialist Cliff Green, who went down in the closing seconds of the game with an abdomen injury. Lineman Pat Downey also saw limited playing time due to illness. Still Sperduto found some encouragement in the fact that his players continue to overcome adversity.
"This was a good game for us," Sperduto said. "The best thing about it was that our players stepped up and made adjustments."
Nashville has two games left in the regular season. They travel to Los Angeles Saturday for a 9 p.m. game. The Kats close the season at home July 13 when the Tampa Bay Storm visits for a 7:30 p.m. game that could decide the Southern Division title.