This is the fourth of an 8-day series previewing each Auburn position leading into spring football. Tomorrow: quarterbacks.
BY AARON BRENNER | firstname.lastname@example.org
AUBURN, Ala. – In each week’s game notes distributed by Auburn’s media relations staff, an entire page was customarily cached solely to brag on the Tigers’ special teams. Much in the way, for instance, Texas A&M would set aside a sheet just for Johnny Manziel.
Across the top was a large-fonted statement from then-head coach Gene Chizik: “We feel very comfortable putting the game on the line with our special teams to win it.”
The typical strengths were threefold: coverage on all returns, the ability to block kicks, and the Auburn kicker and punter doing their individual jobs to the highest caliber.
Bad news: fantastic special teams doesn’t make much of a difference if the offense and defense don’t hold up their end.
Better news: with expected improvement in those battalions, Auburn has basically everybody important back for another special year on special teams.
Except, of course, the coach responsible for that unit’s success.
Here’s a look at Auburn’s special teams, leading into spring football practices:
Who’s been playing: PR Quan Bray (jr.), P Steven Clark (sr.), PR Ricardo Louis (so.), KR Tre Mason (jr.), K Cody Parkey (sr.), DS Jake Lembke (sr.), HLD Ryan White (sr.),
Who’s out the door: KR Onterio McCalebb
Who’s in the door: K Daniel Carlson (Colorado Springs, Colo.), P Jimmy Hutchinson (Kennesaw, Ga.)
Who’s coaching ‘em up: Scott Fountain, 13th year (1st in SEC)
Who’d they replace, where is he now: Jay Boulware, Wisconsin Oklahoma
Thoughts and musings:
- You really can’t rave enough about the dependability of Steven Clark, a Ray Guy finalist his sophomore year of 2011, who actually thought he had a cruddy 2012 by his standards. Honestly, the stats weren’t that pretty. Nobody in the SEC punted more than Clark’s 70 times, and his net punting average of 38.6 yards ranked ninth in the SEC. But get a load of this stat, out of those 70 boots: opponents attempted five returns, for a total of four yards. FOUR. Clark completely took threats like Dustin Harris, Odell Beckham and Johnthan Banks out of the equation.
- You really can’t rave enough about the dependability of Cody Parkey, who enters his senior year with a .750 field-goal percentage – tied for fourth on Auburn’s all-time list with his predecessor and role model, Wes Byrum. Parkey, 70-for-71 on extra points, captained the SEC’s No. 1 kickoff return coverage squad – opponents’ average start position on kickoffs was the 22-yard-line (three yards behind the automatic touchback line.)
- Fountain’s already voiced he wants to see a higher rate of touchbacks than Parkey’s 33-for-48 in 2012. But considering such special teams threats as Jonathan Jones, Joshua Holsey, Ricardo Louis, Jordan Spriggs and others return, directional kicking might not be the worst idea.
- Here’s where Auburn’s special teams have room for improvement: Quan Bray was kind of a mess back there as punt returner. His fumble against LSU was, well, costly. Boulware complained in November he couldn’t find any game-changing returners on punts, and now that Onterio McCalebb takes his kick returning skills to the next level, that will be an immediate point of emphasis for Fountain.
- Scott Fountain’s career resume: After working in high schools and as a grad assistant from 1988-96, Fountain was at Central Florida from 1997-2003 in multiple capacities; coached offensive line at Middle Tennessee State 2004-05; the same position at Georgia Southern in 2006; and tight ends at Iowa State under Gene Chizik from 2007-08. He handled Auburn’s day-to-day football operations from 2009-12. So he’s got plenty of experience. But none in special teams. Something to monitor.
- Auburn landed the No. 1 punter and No. 4 kicker in their class long before the previous coaching staff was dismissed. Even as Boulware took his genius with him north, and the Tigers’ initial replacement (Rich Bisaccia) bolted for the Cowboys after three weeks, this coaching staff managed to keep Hutchinson and Carlson secured. Carlson will arrive in the fall, Hutchinson will take a grayshirt and enroll next spring, thus allowing him to be flexible with his eligibility. Either way, when Clark and Parkey leave, Auburn’s kicking game should be in good hands through 2017. Nice feeling, isn’t it?
3 – Blocked kicks for Auburn last year; two against ULM (Angelo Blackson, Corey Lemonier) and another against Mississippi State (Blackson).
97 – The distance in yards of Mason’s kickoff return for a touchdown in the 2011 opener against Utah State – Mason’s first career game.
9 – Consecutive field goals made by Parkey from late in 2011 to the fifth game of 2012, tied for the third-longest streak in school history.
46 – Parkey’s career long. He told me last year he can connect from 55 if asked.
2 – Auburn’s national ranking in kick return defense and punt return defense in 2012. Only Northern Illinois (an Orange Bowl participant) joined the Tigers as finishing top 10 in both categories.
Good Twitter follows: He has more followers than @WarEagleExtra. He has more followers than @TreMason21. Heck, he even has more followers than both returning quarterbacks – Kiehl Frazier (@KiehlFrazier10) and Jonathan Wallace (@JWall_4) – combined. Ladies and gentlemen … the kicker, Cody Parkey, @CParkey36 (9,807 followers). His active photo feed of food, teammates, the Miami Heat (he’s from Jupiter, Fla.), and … uh … this and this have boosted his cult exposure. By my unofficial check, Parkey’s second on the team among returning players in followers – Nosa Eguae’s got him by about a thousand.
Say what? “I wasn’t real pleased with what we’ve done with punt return in production. That’s area one I’m trying to improve. I know Trovon Reed was back there last year early in the year … and I think Quan Bray’s definitely got the quickness to make guys miss. I don’t know if it was the guys back there or the scheme, but I’m going to study that and really try to figure that out.” – Fountain