How well will the Tigers kick it?
(Photo by Acid Reign.)
War Eagle, everybody! This week we’re going to take a look at Auburn special teams, as well as a bit of a look at the fall schedule. This will set up a series of pieces in coming weeks, where we preview each Auburn opponent, starting with the Arkansas Razorbacks on opening Saturday.
The past five seasons of Auburn football have been wildly up and down. There’s been a national title, and two SEC crowns. There’s also been the worst Auburn football season since the Korean War. One thing that has remained constant during this period is that Auburn has fielded good to excellent special teams units. Kickers Wes Byrum and Cody Parkey could be counted on to deliver points. Clinton Durst, Ryan Shoemaker and Steven Clark provided excellent punting. Auburn has fielded decent to good coverage teams, and a number of players took returns to the house, including Demond Washington, Onterio McCalebb, Tre Mason, Corey Grant, and Chris Davis.
Auburn this season must find some answers. Corey Grant is the only guy back from the list. Regardless of what happens this summer, Auburn will put a kicker and a punter on the field on August 30th that has never kicked a ball at the BCS level. We’ll also likely see new faces in the return game early and often. Special teams coach Scott Fountain used at least a couple of players back and forth at each position last season, with Grant and Tre Mason taking turns returning kicks, and Quan Bray had 12 punt returns to Chris Davis’ 17.
The weakest link on Auburn’s special teams last season was the kick coverage unit, and we saw nothing of it whatsoever, on A-Day. There were no kickoffs, and teams just started drives on the 30 yard line. Last season, Cody Parkey boomed 69 touchbacks on kickoffs, with just 28 returned kicks. However, Auburn gave up an average of 25.8 yards per return. That’s the first time opponents have out-averaged Auburn on kick returns since 2007. A kick return given up for a score late in the BCS Title Game was costly to the Tigers.
Unit looks after the jump!
Tiger coverage last season was hurt by a lack of work, I think. Parkey was so consistent hammering balls into the end zone and beyond, that I don’t think there was usually a sense of urgency by the coverage team. I think Auburn will have to devote more practice time to coverage this fall, because one certainly can’t guarantee that a new kicking group will produce touchbacks 2/3rds of the time.
My guess is that both kickoff and place-kicking duties will be performed by redshirt freshman Daniel Carlson. He handled all the PATs and field goals on A-Day, and did well other than a single missed extra point. I watched quite a bit of the kicking in the pre-game warmups, and Carlson definitely seemed to have leg strength similar to the departed Cody Parkey. Carlson did have the edge on the other kickers pretty consistently on distance. My guess is that Carlson will be another one of those four-year kicking starters Auburn has counted on in recent decades. Previous Auburn freshmen starters at this position were Damon Duval, John Vaughn, and Wes Byrum.
With Ryan “Batman” White graduating, Auburn was looking for a new holder this spring, and appears to have found one. Jonathan Wallace was the guy on A-Day. This will force opposing special teams coaches to spend extra prep time on Auburn’s place-kicking unit. Wallace has been a starting quarterback in the SEC, and can run the ball, as well as the whole offense. Kick blocking units will have to worry about coverage and run lanes, in addition to trying to block kicks. Auburn faked a two-point try in most games last fall, and we could well see an expanded package this season. The statistics guys like Chris Brown insist that with a good offense, a team could score more points if it goes for two every time. My math says that you’d need to be near a 50 percent conversion rate to break even.
Punting duties during A-Day were handled by redshirt freshman Jimmy Hutchinson, who managed a 40-yard average punting against a stiff north breeze. However, the rush wasn’t live, nor was the return. Unlike the kicker situation above, I felt like the punters in pregame warm-ups all did pretty well. Again, they were kicking into the wind the whole time, and I felt like Tyler Stovall and Jack Bjork all did pretty well on most punts. If I had to pick a warmup winner, it would have been Bjork, although I’ll admit that I didn’t sit there with a notebook and record all distances!
Auburn has tried a lot of guys this past spring returning punts, and there’s really no indication that the coaches have any idea who’s going to start there, next fall. Quan Bray has experience, having 41 career punt returns for 293 yards. That average is 7.1 yards per return. He’s not particularly explosive, but does give Auburn a steady pair of hands back there. Otherwise Auburn has tried at least a half dozen guys, including veterans Jonathan Mincy and Robensen Therezie, who will be starting defenders. Therezie was out there on A-Day fielding punts with a cast on his hand. My guess is that it’s going to be awfully tough for anyone to match the production of Chris Davis, last fall.
Covering punts will also have to be more of a focus for Auburn this fall. Last year, Auburn opponents only managed to return 5 of Steven Clark’s 56 punts, for a meager 35 yards. Clark’s incredible hang time and placement will be very difficult to duplicate, and Auburn may have more returnable punts this season. However, if the offense does as well as predicted, Auburn may not be punting much. The Tigers averaged only 4 punts per game last season, with a one-dimensional offense.
In the kick return game, Auburn again worked a lot of guys this spring, but I have a hard time seeing anyone but Quan Bray and Corey Grant getting the starting nod, at least at first. Bray’s been the “blocking return deep man” for the last couple of seasons, and should reprise his role there again. Grant’s a proven threat at kick returner, and unless he becomes the dominant running back, he’ll likely get the lion’s share of early kick return opportunities. Still, I know coach Scott Fountain will work other guys in there when he can. The Tigers probably don’t want seniors Bray and Grant to get every play back there, and leave no experience for the future.
Auburn’s kickoff time for the season opener is set, and it will be on the SEC network at 3:00 PM Central Time on August 30. The Tigers take on Arkansas at Jordan Hare Stadium, in what should be the SEC matchup of the week. LSU does play Wisconsin in Houston, Alabama plays West Virginia in Atlanta, and Georgia hosts Clemson, all big matchups. But Auburn has the chance to start the season with an SEC Western Division win. Tigers vs. Razorbacks is the first important division matchup of the season.
In week two on September 6th, Auburn hosts San Jose State. We know that that game won’t be on the SEC network, and won’t be a much of a draw with the big networks. That one is likely going to be pushed to the evening, and might end up on FSN or pay per view.
The Tigers have week three off, in preparation for a Thursday night battle on September 18th in Manhattan, Kansas against the K-State Wildcats. Unless the Tigers dropped the opener, this will likely be the headline game Thursday evening, that week.
Auburn closes out the month of September on the 27th, with Louisiana Tech and Homecoming. This has typically been a pay per view affair in recent seasons, but it is nice to see this game played in September, rather than the frosty November Homecoming times of recent seasons.
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