Perhaps overlooked by some in the midst of a rebuilding year has been the exceptional play of the special teams, which often placed Auburn in a position to win and at minimum made several games more competitive.
During the 2011 season I kept statistical report cards on offense, defense and special teams to evaluate the play of each unit after each game. Both the offense and defense finished the regular season with five passing grades out of 12 games. Special teams finished the season with 10 passing grades, clearly making it the strongest unit on the team.
Auburn's replacements at kicker and punter were initially a question to begin the season, but they made a significant impact. What might have been a concern early in the season has now become the team's strength.
True sophomore Cody Parkey currently leads the nation in touchbacks with 57.6 percent of his kickoffs going into the end zone and not being returned. In 2007 the NCAA moved the ball back five yards to the 30 for kickoffs, which increased the number of returns and decreased the number of touchbacks.
From 2007-2010 Auburn had 292 kickoffs with 24 resulting in a touchback. During the 2011 season Parkey produced 34 touchbacks from 59 kickoffs.
Because of his long-range ability, Auburn defended only 25 returns during the regular season, which was the fewest number of returns in the nation. How important was it to minimize the number of returns?
The Tigers are currently No. 65 nationally in kick return defense based on the average of yards gained per return. Before the ball was moved back to the 30-yard line on kickoffs there was an average of 35 touchdown returns per season from 2000-2006 across the nation. Since the ball has been moved back, there has been an average of 69 touchdowns per season from 2007-2011.
Not only was Parkey a valuable asset on kickoffs, going into the bowl game he has connected on 11 of 15 field goals, which included 6-7 under 40 yards. By making 36-37 PAT kicks, he is Auburn's leading scorer with 69 points. Parkey took full advantage of being Auburn's full-time starter in 2011, which means the Tigers should have the services of a all-star caliber kicker for two more seasons.
Clark Steps Up, Too...
Sophomore Steven Clark made the Coaches' All-Southeastern Conference Team, averaging 40.5 yards per punt. He is ranked No. 2 in the nation in dropping punts inside the opponent's 20-yard line with 32 of them.
With Clark it was not about distance, but his outstanding hang time, which limited the return opportunities by opponents. AU finished the regular season No. 19 in net punting and only 14.3 percent of the Tigers' punts were returned, fourth best in the nation. Clark's achievements on the field this season made him one of three finalists for the Ray Guy Award, presented annually to college football's top punter.
Steven Clark hits a punt for the Tigers.
Over the past 15 seasons 29.4 percent of Auburn's punts ended up inside the opponent's 20-yard line. During the 2011 regular season, 47.1 percent ended up inside the 20-yard line, the highest percentage during this time period.
Special teams coach Jay Boulware's focus on punting has been taking advantage of Clark's hang time rather than distance. This philosophy resulted opponents returning a grand total of 10 Auburn punts in 12 games at 6.2 yards per return. Clark's ceiling on his punts is very reminiscent of Guy, who was a long-time all-pro star for the Oakland Raiders.
Field position is such a vital facet in football, which made the individual performances of Parkey and Clark, something very special for the Tigers. From 2007-2010 Auburn's opponents began 31.2 percent of their possessions from their own 20-yard line or worse. During the 2011 season Auburn's opponents began 52.3 percent of their possessions at least 80 yards away from the goal line.
Over the past 20 years Auburn's opponents have scored on 17 percent of their possessions that began at least 80 yards away from the goal line and 32 percent of the time on their remaining possessions.
Thanks to Tre Mason and Onterio McCalebb, Auburn is currently No. 15 nationally in kick return offense averaging 24.3 yards. Mason is 19th averaging 26.4 yards per return on 24 attempts. McCalebb averaged 32.0 yards on 10 attempts, which would rate No. 3 nationally if he had enough returns to qualify to be ranked.
Both Tigers had a return for a touchdown this season. They also came close to breaking returns all the way on a few others. Mason and McCalebb are blessed with the speed and vision to be a threat on every they field a kickoff.
In a season of offensive inconsistency, big plays from special teams provided Auburn with a higher probability to score. Mason returned a kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown against Utah State, a game decided by only four points. Mason had two returns of more than 30 yards against Mississippi State, which led to 10 points during a game decided by seven points.
At the time McCalebb's 83-yard touchdown return against Alabama kept Auburn in the game during the third period. From 1987-2008 the Tigers returned 702 kickoffs with four going the distance. During the Gene Chizik Era Auburn has returned 173 kickoffs with four going all the way for a touchdown.
Onterio McCalebb heads to the end zone vs. Alabama.
It has been said that special teams accounts for one-third of the plays of a game, but in reality it is about 18 percent. On the average every sixth play of a game is executed by special teams and the return game accounts for 70 percent of all special teams plays.
Under Chizik, Auburn has excelled in kick return offense and punt return defense as well as field goal percentage. Auburn's special teams play is one of the reasons why AU is 11-3 in games decided by seven points or less under Chizik and and why the Tigers captured the BCS National Championship last season.
The Tigers are still working on improving their punt return offense and kick return defense, which will complete a unit that has been a critical portion of the team's success. The lack of a having enough scholarship players on the roster has forced Auburn to rely on more walk-on players than the coaching staff would normally want. Just as talent and depth is important to the potential of the offense and defense, the same holds true for special teams.
As the coaching staff continues to restock the team roster through recruiting, expect special teams to be a continued strength for future Auburn teams.