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Missouri Western running back Shamar Griffith returns a kickoff at Spratt Stadium.

From the beginning of his reign at Missouri Western, third-year head coach Matt Williamson took pride in having a strong special teams unit.

There will be no exception in 2019, though there are crucial pieces to replace from a season ago.

Missouri Western ranked among the top teams in the MIAA in kickoff coverage, field goals and punting. While the Griffons did rank last in kickoff returns, they were the most lethal punt return unit in the conference.

Missouri Western will replace newly hired assistant coach Tyler Basch at placekicker after his record senior season. He tied an MWSU marked with a 58-yard field goal in the Live United Bowl as part of an All-MIAA and All-Super Region campaign. He suffered from a leg injury for parts of the year and finished 13-for-17.

Sam Aviles handled most of the kickoff duties, totaling 13 touchbacks a season ago. He also went 5-for-7 on field goals, including a season-best 49-yarder in a 4-for-5 day at Missouri Southern. The Smithville native is heading into his junior year.

He is battling it out with redshirt freshman Thomas Kopcho, who is matching Aviles kick for kick in practice, according to Williamson.

“I feel really good there. We’ve been kicking the ball really well so far,” Williamson said. “Thomas Kopcho from Nebraska, a kid we redshirted last year, him and Sam are going neck and neck. Sam’s done a really good job for us last year. It’s always good. We’ve got competition all the way across the board. It’s fun.”

Punter Luke Theis returns for his senior season after averaging better than 40 yards per punt, including 20 inside the 20-yard line. He totaled eight punts of more than 50 years with a long of 65.

The Griffons will need to replace their primary punt returns in Brandin Dandirdge and Carlos Thompson. Dandridge, an All-MIAA selection, average better than 12 yards per return with a 58-yard touchdown return. Thompson returns 10 punts for 183 yards.

The Griffons figure to test sophomore safety Kobe Cummings in the return game, as he lined up deep in the team’s spring game and has for much of practice. Williamson says the team is also experimenting with a number of freshmen who are “electric” in the return game that could play viable roles.

On kick returns, the Griffons welcome back their most consistent return man in junior Shamar Griffith. He returned 11 kicks a season ago, averaging just better than 20 yards per return with a team-long of 55. Griffith was second in the MIAA as a freshman with a kick return over of 22.7 yards.

Brandon Zenner can be reached

at brandon.zenner@newspressnow.com.

Follow him on Twitter: @NPNowZenner.