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Special Teams and a Look at the Fall Schedule

By on April 28th, 2017 in Football 13 Comments »
Carlson Special

Tigers have a phenomenal kicker in the house
(Photo by Acid Reign)

     War Eagle, everybody! It’s time now for a post-spring preview of the Auburn special teams. Given that returns aren’t live during A-Day, this is probably the most difficult unit to take anything meaningful off the field from that scrimmage. Still, there are a few things to watch. I like to watch the warmups. Kickers, punters and the returners usually hit the field first, and I key on how many missed kicks, shanked punts and loose balls I see.

     This year, Daniel Carlson handled every kick and punt during the A-Day game and just about every warmup rep, as well. I think he missed one field goal attempt during warmups. That’s a pretty phenomenal day. Carlson as a punter didn’t impress me as much, but he came away from the game with a 43.8 yards per punt average. That’s a couple of yards higher than Auburn’s 41.5 yard average from last season. Considering also that every punt was fielded, and Carlson got no benefit from a rolling ball, that becomes even more impressive. I fully expect that Ian Shannon will be punting for the Tigers next fall, but it’s really nice to have the safety blanket back there, if that doesn’t pan out!

     Auburn does have some replacing to do in the return games. In particular, punt returner Marcus Davis will be missed. He wasn’t exactly a big threat to break a long return, but he was about as reliable a set of hands back there, as Auburn has ever had. I don’t remember Davis losing a fumble on a punt his entire career. The main thing an Auburn punt returner has to do is field the ball, except when it is going to land inside the 10-yard line. A turnover on a punt return is often a catastrophic game changer.

     During A-Day, we saw a number of guys fielding the ball. I figure that Stephen Roberts has a leg up on the competition, since he returned punts during the Iron Bowl last season. However, Roberts is a starting safety in a depth-challenged secondary. Auburn may need more than one guy over the course of the season.

     The last couple of years, Kerryon Johnson has been a mainstay on the kick-return unit, and I expect that will continue. The good news is that Auburn is pretty loaded with very fast players on this roster, and there should be an able pool of kick returners. Again, much like the punt return game, ball security is key.

     I’ve felt like Auburn’s kick return blocking has steadily declined the past couple of seasons, as Auburn averaged only 19.0 yards per return last season. I can remember just a few seasons ago when guys like Onterrio McCalebb and Corey Grant had Auburn well above 23–25 yards per return. Now, it’s a struggle to get the ball out to the 25. Here’s hoping that improves this season.

     While return yardage was down, Auburn coverage was pretty stifling last season. The kick coverage unit allowed only 18.0 yards per return, and the punt coverage unit allowed just 3.2 yards per return. Of course on the kickoffs, Daniel Carlson had 57 touchbacks on 72 kickoffs. It could have been more, except the coaches seemed at times to try the coffin-corner kickoff inside the 5, to try and pin teams deep. I vote this year to just let Carlson kick away, every time.

     As to place kicking, senior Daniel Carlson should be on the short list of kickers to watch. Last season Carlson was a Groza finalist and might have won it all had the offense performed better at the beginning and end of the season. Carlson was called on to kick way too many long field goals. He had 14 attempts from 40 yards and beyond and, incredibly, hit 11 of those. He had only one miss inside 40 yards on the season. This season, here’s hoping those possessions in enemy territory end in touchdowns.

A look at the schedule, after the jump!

     Auburn kicks off the season on September 2, hosting the Georgia Southern Eagles. Last season, the Eagles struggled to a 5–7 record in the Sun Belt Conference in a bit of a rebuilding year. Make no mistake, though, this is not a team to overlook. The Eagles run an unconventional option offense that is a pain to defend. And they have bitten SEC teams in recent years. Georgia Southern beat Florida in 2013 and took Georgia to overtime in 2015.

     Auburn’s second trip is a road trip to Clemson. It’s a daunting challenge, but at least it’s not the first game of the season. The defending national champs should start the season highly ranked, but they’ll likely be having some growing pains. Gone is spectacular quarterback Deshawn Watson and a host of other big-time talent. Folks claim that Clemson is good enough to just reload, but I’m skeptical. This game is a great chance for Auburn to gain some national recognition.

     Homecoming comes early this year with the Mercer Bears on September 16th. A 6–5 Southern Conference team should not give the Tigers much pause. It will be a good chance to come back to earth after the Clemson tilt.

     Auburn then travels to Missouri to take on the Tigers. The folks in Columbia have fallen on hard times the past couple of seasons and will be looking to turn things around this year. Mizzou did show some signs of improvement late in its 4–8 season, picking up home wins in November against Vanderbilt and Arkansas. It will be an SEC road game, however, and those are always tough.

     Auburn returns home to end the month of September on the 30th and takes on Mississippi State. The Bulldogs had a tough start to last season but improved by leaps and bounds. Wins over Texas A&M and Ole Miss propelled the Bulldogs to the St. Petersburg Bowl, where they knocked off Miami of Ohio. I expect a much tougher challenge out of Mississippi State than we saw last year in Starkville.

     October rolls in with Ole Miss on the 7th. I honestly don’t know what to make of this team. There’s talent there, but they’ve also had a bit of an exodus. The limbo of an NCAA hammer looms over the program, and they have had quite a bit of turnover among the assistants. Do we get an angry Ole Miss team coming in or a defeated one?

     After the Mississippis, Auburn travels to Baton Rouge to take on LSU. This will be the toughest test of the season thus far. Auburn has not won in Baton Rouge since 1999. LSU returns a lot of really good players, and I’m certain Coach O will have them ready to play. Can we pray for an afternoon game in this one?

     Following LSU is Arkansas in Fayetteville. It seems clear to me that Arkansas under Bret Bielema is your annual 7–5 sort of team, and recruiting rankings bear that out. They usually play hard but often have a talent gap in the tough SEC West. I think Auburn is a better team, but this game comes in a very tough spot in the schedule. This one has “trap game” written all over it.

     The Tigers get a much-needed bye week after the LSU/Arky junket. Then on November 4th, Auburn rolls into College Station to take on Texas A&M. On paper, this one looks tough as well. Auburn lost to the Aggies last season because the team could not consistently block Myles Garrett and the Aggie defense. Garrett is gone, and the Aggies will have a different look. Also, the last few seasons the Aggies have pulled a November fade. Here’s hoping that trend continues.

     On Veteran’s Day, Auburn hosts Georgia. This is a team Auburn should have beaten the last couple of years but found ways to lose the game. Auburn should be better on paper than Georgia. It’s time to show it on the field.

     On November 18th Auburn hosts Louisiana Monroe. This was a team trending the wrong way last season, and a struggling Auburn offense was able to plaster them 58–7. This will be a good tuneup for the Iron Bowl.

     Auburn hosts the Iron Bowl on November 25th, and 3-time defending SEC Champ Alabama rolls into town. I think the mindset of both teams will be key. Auburn matches up better with the Bama defense than the past couple of seasons and could make this one interesting. A lot will be depend on what has gone before for the Tigers. If Auburn has won big, they’ll have an enormous amount of confidence. A few setbacks, and they might not.

     Looking at this schedule, I’m seeing an optimistic 9–3 or 10–2 record. I’m confident that Auburn can match up with any team on the schedule. That road trip to Louisiana and Arkansas worries me, though. A pessimist would say that the only gimmes on the Auburn schedule are the 3 home nonconference games. Auburn has to win them and beat Mizzou and both Mississippi teams to get to the Birmingham Bowl. I’m going to lean toward the more optimistic view!

13 Comments

  1. KungFuPanda9 KungFuPanda9 says:

    Based on what I read about LSU’s struggles on offense during their “A” day game (whatever they call it, maybe the CornDog Bowl), I don’t think the purple Tigers will be as daunting this year.

    Clemson, Georgia and bama are the only questionable games.

    If our three quarterbacks play well and the O-line gets into a groove, we have a good chance to win the West.

    • Acid Reign Acid Reign says:

      …..I’ll have to look into their offense, more. Should be a VERY salty defense, though.

    • neonbets says:

      To show how difficult to even achieve a 10-2 record…
      Give AU wins against the 3 small schools and offset Ala, Clemson with GA and LSU. [ie AU goes 2-2 in the games against the Big 4.]

      THEN, run through the remaining games giving a % to each in accordance with a Vegas money line prediction. [For reference, a significant spread of 16.5 equates with only an 89% chance of winning according to Vegas number crunchers. https://www.sportsbookreview.com/picks/tools/spread-ml-converter/ … How many 16.5 spread games do you think there are in those remaining games? Not many.

      Multiply your decimals and be prepared for dampened expectations.

  2. ausouthal says:

    Please don’t let our starting d-backfield be too involved in special teams play. We can ill afford to lose Stephen Roberts to an injury on punt returns. Soooo thin at the safety position.

  3. audude audude says:

    Another good write up Acid. I don’t see Rose colored glasses coming out yet. It’s still a game of what ifs? Like you and others have said, the proof is in the pudding when they strap on their helmets and start knocking other people around we’ll see what we have and how they can maintain a nasty streak.

    WDE

  4. AUNation AUNation says:

    Btw, since we are talking about possible Ws and Ls, did anyone else watch UA's A Day game? I was left shaking my head and smiling. Sure, it's Spring and they have plenty of time to improve, but their secondary looks to have regressed a TON, even to the point of switching a former 5 star reciever over there just to get his athleticism in the mix. But they were constantly out of position and several steps behind the recievers, YET every QB they trotted out there still put the ball in danger and they threw some ugly picks.

    UA's offense will be fine because they can fall back on the run game and be able to move the ball, but if Stidham is spinning the ball in November like he showed in our A Day he will slice up their secondary. I like what I see in the match up currently. If we could only play in April…

    • Acid Reign Acid Reign says:

      ……I’ve got the Bama spring game DVR’d, but have only seen bits and pieces. Frankly, Jalen Hurts tried to give the Iron Bowl away last year, but we were so poor on offense by that time that all we could cash the mistakes for were field goals.

      ……It’s quite usually the refrain the last ten years, that if the Bama defense has a weakness, it’s giving up big plays in the secondary. They do, but not as often as a lot of people think. Teams are kind of forced into taking deep shot after deep shot, when they can’t get anything done on the ground or short through the air.

      …..I also seem to remember Bama leading the nation in pick-sixes a couple of seasons ago.

      • AUNation AUNation says:

        Yes, they did have a ton of pick 6s last year and most of that was because their D line forced almost every throw to be rushed. But they lost a lot of talent off the DL too. I’m telling you, if our OL can give Stidham time he could expose this secondary. Watch thier Spring game and I think you’ll come away less than impressed like I was.

        • Tiger Tiger says:

          Talked this week with a b*** alumnus and avid student of b*** football. He was very pleased with QB play, from both Jalen Hurts and Tua Toalkgailivaikokalkimokie. But he didn’t tell me about the picks, haha.

          Now I didn’t watch their A-day game myself (I don’t donate my time to that team), but I hope AUnation’s observations are due to a bad secondary and not improved QB’s.

  5. JRoweMDN says:

    There are a lot of question marks on that schedule including Bama, LSU, UGA, and Clemson.

    Clemson is going to lose a step off last year replacing Watson, Boulware, and the rest of their graduating talent.
    LSU is going to be a mess this year while Coach O pulls it all together. Not sure they have a viable QB, butt hey still have good D and Guice.
    UGA will depend on the QB being solid and everything starting to really gel for Smart. They have plenty of talent.
    Bama has a bunch of talent to pull from and Saban is a good coach. They will be well prepared for the season and I only need them to lose once next year.

    All of them have weaknesses and strengths, but our key is to not beat ourselves. This year is about development and play calling. The difference between 7-5 and 12-0 this year could be a very slim margin of points that will be about play calls.