Last season Auburn improved from No. 27 nationally in kick return offense in 2009 to No. 25 in 2010. Auburn made a slight improvement in punt return offense moving up to No. 90 in 2010 from No. 113 in 2009.
The most significant improvement came in kick return defense where the Tigers improved from No. 97 in 2009 to No. 16 nationally in 2010. Auburn also made a dramatic improvement in punt return defense from No. 106 in 2009 to No. 9 in 2010.
With all the scrutiny Coach Jay Boulware was under in 2009 when it came to special teams, he deserves as much credit for the improvement made this past season.
With the national championship season in Auburn's rearview mirror, Coach Boulware's focus is now on the upcoming season and how the Auburn Tigers can continue to improve on special teams. During a recent interview with Inside the Auburn Tigers, Boulware identified the lack of talent and the reliance on non-scholarship players as issues on special teams during the 2009 season. Auburn's 2010 recruiting class allowed the Tigers to put additional scholarship players on special teams and true freshmen like Craig Sanders and Demetruce McNeal excelled in those roles.
With the Tigers losing their starting place-kicker and punter from 2010 the kicking-game now becomes a major question mark for 2011.
The impact of special teams...
It's been said that special teams account for nearly one-third of the plays during a football game, which in reality isn't true. Looking back over the past 15 years of Auburn football games all the special team plays combined have accounted for 17.7 percent of the game action. That might not seem like much, but when you consider there are an average of 28.5 special team plays per game the importance of being sound in this area of a football team is clear.
On average every sixth play during an Auburn football game has been a special teams play, which means it could have an enormous impact on the outcome of a game.
During his career kicker Wes Byrum made six game-winning field goals, including the one to win the BCS National Championship against the Oregon Ducks in January. Except for the 2008 season Byrum, Auburn's all-time leading scorer, was a consistent kicker for the Tigers.
Over the past 50 years Auburn has converted 70.2 percent of its field goal attempts. Excluding 2008, Byrum connected on 78.7 percent of his field goals during his three other seasons. You never know just how important a place-kicker is until you have one struggling. Five missed field goals against LSU in 2005 might have cost Auburn an opportunity to win back-to-back Southeastern Conference Championships.
Kickoff specialist Matt Clark was Auburn's hidden MVP candidate during the 2006 season when the Tigers posted an 11-2 record. Of his 66 kickoffs, 51 resulted in a touchback, a major improvement from the 30 of 74 in 2005. In 2006 there were 82 possessions defended by the Auburn defense which began at least 80 yards away from the Auburn end zone. The opponent scored on just 18.3 percent of those possessions. During the remaining 54 possessions the opponent scored 29.6 percent of the time.
After the 2006 season the NCAA moved the ball back five yards on kickoffs, making touchbacks extremely rare in college football. Last season only 15.1 percent of kickoffs at the FBS level resulted in a touchback. Oklahoma State was No. 1 nationally with a touchback percentage of 51.9 percent and Auburn was No. 87 at 7.1 percent.
Perhaps the most important aspect of special teams is kick and punt coverage as well as the return game. It plays such a vital role in field position, which impacts a team's scoring opportunities.
From 1996-2010 Auburn has scored on 22.9 percent of its possessions starting from its own 20-yard line or greater. The Tigers scored on 29.2 percent of their possessions from their own side of the 50-yard line. When they began possessions at midfield or better, Auburn scored 62.2 percent of the time.
On the defensive side of the football Auburn's opponent scored on only 16.5 percent of their possessions starting at their own 20-yard line or greater. The opponent scored on 20.6 percent of their possessions starting on their side of the 50-yard line and 52.8 percent from midfield or better. A good return game or good kick coverage can swing field position, dictating the scoring opportunities.
If you were to break down special team plays over the past 15 years at Auburn, 70.5 percent of the plays involve kickoffs and punts, which is why being solid in this portion of the special teams is so imperative. During Auburn's championship season the Tigers were No. 25 nationally in kick return offense, No. 90 in punt return offense, No. 16 in kick return defense and No. nine in punt return defense.
Based on Auburn's national rankings, it would appear punt return offense would be the primary area for improvement on special teams in 2011. Boulware has already identified this area along with kickoffs as a primary concern during spring practice. Finding a playmaker to return punts would be a major boost for the 2011 Tigers considering Auburn has finished 52nd or worse nationally in this area in five of the past six seasons.
Looking for improvement...
The special teams performance by the 2006 Auburn Tigers is a prime example of an average team enhanced through special teams. During the 2006 season Auburn was No. 4 nationally in kick return offense and No. 21 in kick return defense. Auburn's punter, Kody Bliss, was No. 3 in the nation averaging 45.7 yards per punt.
Kicker John Vaughn was No. 9 nationally averaging 1.54 made field goals per game, connecting on 20 of 24 attempts. Auburn allowed only 13 kick returns during the entire season, the fewest in the nation. Special teams played a major role in six of Auburn's 11 victories that season, making up for an offense ranked No. 76 in total offense.
Boulware says he believes Auburn will be more reliant on special teams in 2011 and a repeat of 2006 would be just what the doctor ordered. Cody Parkey had a solid spring kicking field goals, Boulware notes, but a leg injured sidelined him for the A-Day Game. The Auburn coach says he wants to see deeper kickoffs from Parkey or whoever else has that assignment this fall.
Punter Steven Clark averaged under 40 yards per punt in the spring scrimmages. Boulware says the coaches have been pleased with Clark's directional punts and his hang time, but they are continuing to work on his distance and consistency.
Steven Clark is a sophomore from Kansas City.
Auburn must replace its leading kickoff returner, Demond Washington. Onterio McCalebb might be the primary replacement with 19 career returns, averaging 26.2 yards per return, going into his junior season.
Trovon Reed prepares to catch a punt in practice.
Quindarius Carr made 19 of Auburn's 22 punt returns last season, but averaged only 5.7 yards per return and was replaced in the Alabama game when he dropped a punt deep in Auburn territory. Though Carr will be in the mix to return punts in 2011, Coach Trooper Taylor is exploring other options like Trovon Reed, who fielded punts in the A-Day contest along with Carr.
After averaging more than 10 yards per punt return in five of six seasons from 1999-2004 the Tigers have averaged under 10 yards per return in five of the last six seasons. Auburn has returned only one punt for a touchdown in the past 14 seasons, but has returned six kickoffs for a touchdown.
When you consider that 38 percent of Auburn's games over the past 20 years have been settled by seven points or less special teams could play a major role in the outcome of over one third of Auburn's games. With the Tigers replacing eight starters on offense and eight more on defense, they could use a helping hand from special teams.
Boulware says he expects continued improvement in the special teams play based on personnel and the focus on fundamentals and technique. As much as the game has evolved over the past decade, three primary goals remain the same--a strong running game along with a solid defense and a productive kicking game normally translate to a very successful team.