Position Analysis: Special Teams

Special teams were both a strong point and weak point in 2014. How it shapes up this year.

The Candidates:

Kickoffs: 15 Luke Ferguson (6-0, 220 Sr.) 28 Sawyer Williams (5-11 205 Fr).

Place Kicker: 35 JD Houston (5-11 165 Jr), 36 Drew White (5-8, 195 Jr.) or 28 Sawyer Williams.

Punter: 15 Luke Ferguson, 31 Damon Foncham (5-8, 190 Fr.).

Holder 10 Cameron Birse (6-2 220 RSo), Luke Ferguson.

Deep Snapper 45 Ryan Eustace (6-0 208 Jr) 46 Mitch Hardy (6-2, 237 RFr.) or Paul Swanson (6-2 210 Jr).

Punt Returner 1 Blaise Taylor (5-9 170 So.), 14 Chris Murray (5-8, 175 Jr.)

Kickoff Returner 23 J.D. McKissic (5-10 191 RSr.), 34 Michael Gordon (5-9, 201 Sr.) or 5 Daryl Rollins-Davis (5-9 165 So.)

The Numbers: The special teams segment of the Arkansas State 2014 season was a season of highs and lows. The Red Wolves finished the year tops in the Sun Belt in kickoff return average (22.49), kickoff coverage (16.31), punt coverage (3.1) and second in net punting (39.82). That was balanced by punt return finishing 76th in the nation in punt returns (7.10), going 11 for 18 on field goals (61% which would have tied for 98th), and missing 8 extra points. Luke Ferguson had a good year on punts and kickoffs, pinning 22 of 56 punts inside an opponent’s 20-yard line, while on kickoffs he had 35 touchbacks of 80 kicks. Blaise Taylor had the first punt return touchdown for the Red Wolves since the 2007 season. McKissic had a big year as a returner in 2013 before struggling with injuries in 2014.

The Analysis: There will continue to be anxiety over kicking the ball through the uprights as no true solution has presented itself so far. JD Houston has been the most consistent in camp but proceeded to miss his first extra point during the first scrimmage of fall camp. It appears Luke Ferguson is not in the mix at place kicker though he may be used for longer kicks. As termed by some this is a battle for a scholarship and the competition is strong. Freshman Sawyer Williams may be the next in line and JUCO transfer Drew White has also shown some ability with the leg. At punter, Ferguson is back after a very good year. The coaching staff’s use of creative motion, formation, and fakes caused teams to eschew strong returns last year and led to a great net punt average, an increase in the hidden yardage of the game. Damon Foncham, a true freshman, seems to have the upper hand in the back up battle, however JD Houston May pull a double duty as back up punter.

With the loss of Stephen Hogan, a new holder was needed and quarterback Cameron Birse as well as Ferguson are vying for the spot with A-Back Sterling Stowers also seeing reps. Deep snapping on place kicks were an issue last year as Hogan and Ferguson looked like shortstops at times. Ryan Eustace, mainly the snapper on punts, is back and from practice has shown improvement from last season. Mitch Hardy redshirted last year, and seems to have a leg up on the back up position as true freshman Ty Mimbs is in the third position.

In the return game, Blaise Taylor showed a spark as a punt returner, but his main plus in the department at the time he was installed as the returner is that he secured the catch first, as there had been a few muffs previously. Backing him up is newcomer Chris Murray who coaches have described as “electrifying” in the return game. McKissic and Gordon are back in the kickoff return mix, as is Rocky Hayes. Daryl Rollins-Davis may also see reps there if he doesn’t redshirt after his ACL injury last year.

The Special team’s game has been good in places and it figures to continue to be good in the return and coverage areas as the coaches stress these during every practice. Hopefully the FG/PAT part of special teams will make improvements this fall.