Other than specialists like kickers, punters, long snappers and returners, no athletes look forward to playing on special teams. Some might say they do, but they don’t. Not really. Running down the field at full speed and colliding into blockers and/or runners is a fool’s mission, but someone has to do it. For the Bearcats, no one has done it better than Orion Woodard.
The New Jersey boy has made a mind and body numbing 47 special teams tackles in his Cincinnati career. The only other UC player since 2000 even close to Woodard’s number is Charley Howard with 40 stops. But the young man known by his teammates as “OJ” came to Clifton Heights with a different plan. He wanted to run routes and catch the football, but when that dream didn’t materialize, the always smiling senior showed his character and quickly accepted his new role on the team.
“There was a little disappointment, but I was willing to do whatever was best for the team,” said Woodard. “Things didn’t go my way, and I had to make the best of it. Going through practices being down on yourself will only bring down your teammates so I just look at every day as a new day and do my best.”
Woodard’s “best” just kept getting better each year. As a redshirt freshman, he managed to record 5 special teams’ tackles. The next season that number went to 7. As a junior, it jumped to 12, and this year he set a team and maybe program high of 23 special teams’ stops. In actuality, that total might be a little low. Woodard believes he had at least five and possibly six tackles against Syracuse, but the official stats have him with only four. The 6-foot-3, 220 pounder wasn’t necessarily complaining. He just takes a lot of pride in his work.
“I take a lot of pride in my play because I know it’s going to help the team whether it’s just keeping my guy under control or making a tackle on the play. It can really help the defense and the hidden yardage if I can make a tackle on the ten or the fifteen yard line. Special teams are part of the whole effort.”
Although Woodard’s career reception numbers of three catches for thirty yards don’t suggest a lot of playing time, he is on the field quite a bit since he participates on all special teams’ units except the PAT’s, but for some reason, most leagues aren’t willing to recognize these kinds of players. When the Big East Conference recently released its all-league teams, there was no spot for a special teams’ player like Woodard. The league honors kickers, punters and return specialists but not the players willing to risk injury by running full speed for forty to fifty yards throwing their bodies into other oncoming players.
One special teams’ player once compared the task to standing on the running board of a car moving twenty miles per hour and then jumping into a mail box. That comparison is evidently why the UC staff refers to these units as the “goon squad.” The faint of heart need not apply.
Unlike the college game, the NFL annually recognizes special team performers by sending them to the Pro Bowl. Former Buffalo Bills “gunner,” Steve Tasker, was a seven time NFL Pro Bowler and the game’s MVP in 1993, but for some reason college coaches haven’t yet been willing to honor these special people. Woodard wishes that would change even if it’s too late for him.
“Oh yeah! I would have loved to have had something like that,” he said. “That would be great if they came out with something like that.”
Woodard admits to having a good mentor in recently graduated Collin McCafferty.
“Collin would run at guys with no fear,” said Woodard. “I really tried to take that mentality by running down field and either getting through guys to get the tackle or to get the block.”
Although it might be a long shot, No. 84 is hoping his football career won’t end with the Liberty Bowl.
“I’d like to go to the NFL,” he said. “I’d always regret it if I never even tried. I want to see if I can make it. If that’s not in the cards, I have my degree to fall back on.”
The use of the words “fall back” in relationship to this special kid just seems wrong, but like he said, he’s had his criminal justice degree since last spring and is now working on a second major. He’s ready for whatever his future holds.
There are few certainties in life, but plenty of good bets. One of those would be that whatever destiny awaits Orion Woodard, he’ll meet it going full speed and with no regrets. After all, his training came from the Cincinnati “goon squad,” and that’s just what they do.