Putting the “Special” Back in Those Teams
Auburn must replace a legend
(Photo by Acid Reign.)
War Eagle, everybody! This week, on the eve of a much-muted national signing day, we’ll take a look at Auburn’s special teams performance this past season and a glimpse ahead of what the future might hold. Additionally, I think a look at next fall’s schedule is in order. It’s going to be a fun year, folks!
Last off season about this time, I got a big lump in my throat as it was announced that special teams coach Scott Fountain was going to be taken off the field and put in an off-the-field role. I remember hoping that Auburn would not rue the day. Well…the team did. Special teams took a number of steps back and contributed in multiple instances to a 4-loss season that could have been a championship year.
At punter, Ian Shannon was the heir apparent and had looked good on past A-Days. Shannon had good punts and bad punts and was replaced after just 4 games by true freshman Aidan Marshall, who finished the year as the starting punter. A look at the stats of both punters is interesting. Neither guy set the world on fire with his punting average, but Shannon was better, at 39.8 yards per punt, to Marshall’s 39.4. Similarly, Shannon had 6 of his 14 punts downed inside the 20 with no touchbacks, while Marshall had 18 of 43 punts downed inside the 20 with 3 touchbacks. Honestly, it looked like the Auburn coaching staff panicked a bit early on and went to the bullpen. Perusing the Auburn official roster this off season, Marshall is the only punter listed. That’s a shame. I’d have loved to have seen Shannon get a fair chance to get his job back.
The fact is that Auburn is an SEC team, and an average punt of less than 40 yards per attempt is unacceptable. Typically at Auburn, when a freshman starts, his average tends to jump in year two after hard work. Auburn has not just stood pat with just one punter returning. I’ve left incoming players out, mostly, in my work this past month. However, I have to mention that Auburn does have a promising Australian punter committed for this fall. Arryn Siposs is scheduled to arrive this year and could set the punting situation on its ear.
Much like previous years, Auburn only allowed 14 punt returns on 57 punts. Unfortunately, the Tigers gave up 11.4 yards per return, including a back-breaking touchdown in Baton Rouge in a 27–23 loss to LSU. The returns allowed, coupled with below average distance, led Auburn to average only 35.6 net yards per punt. Auburn had a scary passer and runners for much of 2017. They would have been much better served by an aggressive “go for it” policy on 4th and 5 or less. Auburn’s punting and coverage must improve if Auburn is to have any chance to contend for titles in 2018.
I have to tip my hat to Stephen Roberts, Auburn’s departing senior punt returner. He picked up the job in late 2016 and leaves Auburn without muffing a punt. That’s big, in my book. Did he fair catch too much? Possibly. However, Auburn has not blocked on punt returns very well over the past few seasons. Emphasis is on finding ways to affect the punter or block it. Securing the ball is paramount. Roberts was better than most on those duties. With his departure, the race is wide open. Auburn has tons of good skill guys that can catch. Who can the team put out there in 2018 that will protect Auburn field position as well as Roberts did? I shall watch A-Day warmups with great interest on this score!
On kick returns, Auburn turned pretty quickly to true freshman Noah Igbinoghene, who managed 23.8 yards per return with what I saw as pretty conservative blocking. That’s not a bad average, especially for a true freshman. Igbinoghene was on the verge of breaking several returns for a score. He was it as far as Auburn kick returners go in 2017, tallying 24 of 27 returns.
Auburn kick coverage was shaky going into 2017, and this unit went into the toilet with coach Fountain’s departure. Auburn gave up 27.2 yards per kick return, which is just flat-out bad. The only saving grace for this coverage team is that it only had to defend 25 returns, vs. 65 touchbacks, in 2017.
I suppose it was a tough year for senior kicker Daniel Carlson, who was hoping to win the Lou Groza award and finished hitting only 23 of 31 field goal attempts. Carlson had at least one miss at every range category but was particularly hurt by the the distance frequently asked of him. I maintain that any field goal attempt of 40 yards or more is a coin flip, even with the best of kickers. Auburn asked Carlson to boot 16 of these, or over half of his attempts on the season. Carlson hit 10 of 16 on these. As to kickoffs, Carlson nailed 65 touchbacks on 93 kickoffs on the season with only one ball kicked out of bounds. That’s pretty phenomenal.
Here’s a look ahead on Auburn’s 2018 football schedule with what we know now. Auburn opens the season in Atlanta, facing the Washington Huskies. If Auburn has not solved the terrible shoe problem by this time, another bad defeat will happen. The Tigers MUST find a way to get traction on turf before next September!
The Tigers return home the following week to face Alabama State. This one should be a tune-up game for a home tilt a week later against LSU. LSU was pretty good in 2017, but there has been coaching turmoil, and offensive coordinator Matt Canada was let go. I see it as a bizarre decision. Canada had good schemes and was a pain in the butt for SEC defensive coordinators to prepare for. I guess it wasn’t vanilla enough for Coach O.
September continues with a bang after LSU with Arkansas coming to town. Quite frankly, I have no idea what to expect from this team, which has been taken over by former Malzahn disciple Chad Morris. A new look from the Razorbacks could be dangerous, but this was the worst team in the SEC West last year, and it wasn’t even close.
Old foe Southern Mississippi returns on September 29 for the first time since 2008. Last season, the Golden Eagles got beaten by Kentucky, North Texas, UAB, Tennessee, and Florida State. I’m not expecting a huge challenge, here.
Auburn travels to Starkville in early October for a clash with the MSU Bulldogs. It’s a whole new coaching staff for the Bullies, but they have tended to be tough at home.
Auburn hosts Tennessee on October 13. Tennessee is in serious rebuild mode and should not be too much trouble. However, I have to complain about this game! What’s up with the SEC scheduling? Auburn has not played Florida since 2011. And we get Tennessee twice after that before seeing Florida again? Auburn played Tennessee in Knoxville in 2013.
Auburn finishes October in Oxford, facing Ole Miss. It’s a team headed in the opposite direction from Auburn, hopefully. Auburn gets a bye on the last football weekend in October.
November is brutal for the Tigers. Auburn gets Texas A&M at home to begin. Since this SEC series began, Auburn has never beaten the Aggies at Auburn. There is talent on that roster. It will be interesting to see what new coach Jimbo Fisher gets out of them.
Next up is Georgia in Athens. This UGA team will be loaded with talent, but a lot of it is very young. I expect a titanic battle that will affect both division races.
Auburn plays Liberty in Auburn the following week. Liberty? Believe it or not, this is a newly minted FBS team playing as an independent in 2018. The head coach is Turner Gill, who once was under consideration for the Auburn post. This Virginia-based school will have its hands full in Auburn in November.
Auburn finishes the regular season in Tuscaloosa for the Iron Bowl. I see no reason not to expect another very powerful Tide squad this year at a difficult venue.