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Special teams producing points for No. 22 Cowboys

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Special teams producing points for No. 22 Cowboys

STILLWATER, Okla. (AP) After blocking a punt for the first time in his career, Oklahoma State's Zack Craig was a bit surprised when he was asked to try for another in the same game. He was even more shocked when he turned his second block into a touchdown.

``To get in the end zone was just nuts,'' said Craig, a third-down linebacker when he's not serving as the Cowboys' special teams ace.

Craig's two-block game was the latest standout performance on special teams for No. 22 Oklahoma State (7-3, 5-2 Big 12) heading into this Saturday's rivalry game at No. 14 Oklahoma (8-2, 6-1).

The Cowboys have scored special teams touchdowns in three straight games, with Craig's return following kickoff return scores the previous two weeks by Justin Gilbert and Desmond Roland.

And that's only the beginning. Quinn Sharp matched his career-best with a 51-yard field goal last week in a 59-21 blowout against Texas Tech, and the Cowboys got a pair of turnovers on special teams the week before that during a 55-34 shootout win against West Virginia.

``Our guys have bought into the plan, and that's what's helped,'' Sharp said. ``We've stayed sound in what we were doing. We didn't make it too complicated, we didn't try to do too many different things and it's worked very well for us.''

Despite Roland's runback against K-State, coach Mike Gundy called the overall special teams performance in the loss ``very poor'' and it spurred a turnaround at a program that takes the kicking game seriously. The Cowboys were one of the rare college teams with a special teams coordinator until Joe DeForest left after 11 seasons to become West Virginia's defensive coordinator.

Even then, Gundy plucked Ty Linder away from Texas Tech and made him a special teams coordinator as a graduate assistant.

``We've gotten much better,'' Gundy said. ``The players have bought into the system and our game plan each week, and it comes down to them. They have to want to do it and we have to put them in that position.''

The Cowboys got two key turnovers on special teams in the West Virginia game. The first came when a bouncing kick went off the helmet of the Mountaineers' Andrew Buie.

Even more crucial was Teddy Johnson's recovery after Tavon Austin couldn't get out of the way when Sharp's punt bounded sideways with the Cowboys leading 31-24 in the third quarter. OSU converted the possession into a touchdown and held on for the win.

On Saturday night against Texas Tech, six of the Cowboys' 10 kickoffs went for touchbacks and the Red Raiders started with even worse field position the other four times. Their lone punt return went for 3 yards.

That meant all the big plays on special teams went in Oklahoma State's favor.

``Coming up with big plays on special teams like that each week, it's so much momentum in a game. It just helps overall in the long run,'' said Sharp, who averages the most field goals in the country and would be in the top 10 in punting average if the Cowboys punted frequently enough for him to qualify.

Craig's two blocked punts marked the first time Oklahoma State had multiple blocks in the same game since the Kansas game two years ago, and they came as part of careful planning by Oklahoma State.

The Red Raiders' punt formation relied on three blockers in a center shield protecting punter Ryan Erxleben, and Craig said he'd been frustrated during practice because he was unsuccessful trying to come across the punter for a block. Gundy and Linder suggested he run past the punter and simply reach his hands toward the ball as he went by.

``The first time I tried it in practice, I blocked it,'' said Craig, who included a series of blocked punts and PATs in the game tape that helped him get recruited to OSU.

For it to pay off in a game was even better. The Cowboys led 21-7 at the time and got a touchdown four plays later to break the game open.

``That was awesome for us. We practiced that all week and we thought had a chance of getting one,'' Sharp said. ``We thought that their operation time was a little slower than most people's, and their punter, I don't think he did a very good job of staying inside the shield.''

Craig used a similar technique to get around the shield for the second block, which led to the touchdown.

``Blocking two punts is hard to do in one game, or even a season,'' Gundy said. ``But Zack likes to play football, it's important to him and he worked hard and studied tape and it paid off for him.''

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Get to know newest Capitals defenseman Michal Kempny

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Get to know newest Capitals defenseman Michal Kempny

On Monday, with the NHL trade deadline approaching, the Washington Capitals addressed a need for blue line depth by acquiring Michal Kempny from the Chicago Blackhawks in exchange for a conditional third-round pick in the 2018 NHL Draft.

But before you begin to analyze how the move impacts the Capitals' outlook heading forward, lets take some time to get to know the newest member of the Caps.

Who is Michal Kempny?

Michal Kempny is a 27-year-old defenseman from the Czech Republic. He was born on Sept. 8, 1990 in Hodonin, a small town in southwestern Czech Republic near the border of Austria and Slovakia. Kempny began his hockey career playing for SHK Hodonin. Kempny knew very little english upon arriving to the NHL, but credited his girlfriend Showtime shows to helping him become more comfortable speaking the language. 

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What International Experience Does Michal Kempny Have?

Michal Kempny played professionally for HC Kometa Brno of the Czech Extraliga and Avangard Omsk of the Kontinental Hockey League. Kempny was a standout player on the international stage, playing for the Czech Republic U18, U20 and Men's National teams.

MORE ON THE TRADE: WHERE DOES KEMPNY FIT IN THE CAPS ROSTER

When Did Michal Kempny Make His NHL Debut?

Michal Kempny was signed to a one-year contract as an undrafted free agent by the Chicago Blackhawks in May, 2016 and made his NHL debut in October, 2016. Kempny scored his first NHL goal on Dec. 30, 2016 against Carolina Hurricanes goalie Cam Ward. Kempny appeared in 50 games for the Blackhawks during the 2016-17 season, recording two goals and six assists. The Blackhawks re-signed Kempny to a one-year extension during the offseason. Kempny played in 31 games this season before being traded to the Capitals.

What Type of Hockey Player is Michal Kempny?

Kempny is a 6-0, 194-pound defenseman with a strong left-handed shot. Known for his play on the offensive end, Kempny was never able to gain the trust of Joel Quenneville on the defensive end. But Kempny has a good bit of offensive upside, thanks to his passing skills and strong shot, which is why the Blackhawks took a flier on him in the first place and why he was an ideal trade candidate for the Capitals. But again, Kempny's size is less than ideal for a top-tier blue-liner and while he doesn't shy away from contact, he is rarely much of a physical presence. 

What Does Michal Kempny's Contract Look Like?

Michael Kempny is set to become an unrestricted free agent the the end of the 2017-18 season and has a cap hit of just $900,000.

RELATED: TROTZ REACTS TO RACIAL COMMENTS MADE BY CHICAGO FANS

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Its Day 1 of spring training and Bryce Harper is already done taking questions regarding his future

Its Day 1 of spring training and Bryce Harper is already done taking questions regarding his future

So if you have not heard, Bryce Harper is going to be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the 2018 season.

All off-season talking heads, baseball aficionados, radio hosts, etc. were speculating on where the outfielder’s destination will be next year.

And we are still a year away from it actually happening.

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Reporting to spring training on Monday, Harper did not waste any time telling the media how his press conferences were going to play out this season.

“If guys do [ask], or talk anything about that, I will be walking right out the door.”

Entering his seventh season with the Washington Nationals, the 25-year-old is coming off the second-best season, statistically, of his career. The 2015 NL MVP has hit .285 in his career, with 150 home runs and 421 RBIs. Unquestionably he is the face of the Nationals’ organization, if not, the best player in the team’s history.

If he does end the season without a contract extension, he will join Rafael Palmeiro, Alex Rodriguez, Randy Johnson, and Barry Bonds as the top sought out free agents in MLB history.

One thing is for certain in terms of Harper’s free agency; Harper has given no inclination on where his landing spot will be.  The top three cities are of course his favorite childhood team, the New York Yankees; joining with one of his closest friends with the Chicago Cubs; or just staying with Washington.

Wherever he does land, it does appear that it will be the largest contract given to a free agent ever.

As for now we just wait and direct any of your calls to his agent Scott Boras.

READ ALSO: NATIONALS FULL SPRING TRAINING SCHEDULE