Special Teams and a Look at the Fall Schedule
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!