Last year this phase of the game helped Auburn substantially and special teams coach Jay Boulware has a kicker/punter duo returning who are expected to play a significant role in helping the 2012 team.
Cody Parkey entered last season having the challenge of replacing Wes Byrum, who holds the record for most points scored (363) in Auburn football history. He answered the call by leading the team in scoring with 80 points with a steady performance on field goals and extra points while having an outstanding year kicking off.
The junior, who took over field goal and extra point duty after only kicking off in 2010, hit 13-18 field goals and 41-42 extra points. Parkey also improved his kickoff distance from averaging 63.2 yards during the Tigers' national championship season to 68.9 yards last year.
Steven Clark's improvements from to 2010 to 2011 were so substantial he was named a finalist for the Ray Guy Award, which is presented to the nation's top punter.
After averaging a mere 34.9 yards on nine punts in 2010 as a freshman, the 6-5, 235-pound Clark punted the ball 72 times last season for an average of 40.8 yards, including 33 that were placed inside the 20-yard line. Opponents only returned 10 punts for 62 yards all year. Clark's performance gained him All-American honors by Pro Football Weekly and Sports Illustrated.
Steven Clark is shown in action as a sophomore.
Josh Harris, a steady multi-year starter as a deep snapper, is trying to make an NFL team this year so he must be replaced. A pair of sophomores, Jake Lembke and Forrest Hill, are competing to win that assignment.
The Tigers have not been hesitant to use freshmen in punt and kickoff return roles in recent seasons, but they may not have to do that this year with experienced players returning to handle those assignments.
Tre Mason only had 28 carries last season as a freshman running back, but led the team in kickoff returns (24) and yards (633). The sophomore made an impressive college debut with a return of 97 yards for a touchdown in the 2011 opener vs. Utah State.
Tre Mason scores a touchdown in Auburn's victory over Utah State.
Mason's 26.4 yards per kickoff return was impressive, but it was topped by running back Onterio McCalebb, who split time last year next to Mason on kickoffs with wide receiver Quan Bray. A 5-11, 168-pound senior, McCalebb led the Tigers in average yards per return (30.7) as he took 11 kickoffs for 338 yards and a touchdown.
Bray, who returned 10 kickoffs for 242 yards, led the team in punt returns (13) as a freshman. He averaged 7.4 yards per return while another wide receiver, Trovon Reed, averaged 5.2 yards on his eight punt returns last fall as a redshirt freshman.
Quan Bray is expected to be a key player for the 2012 Tigers.
The option for more speed in the return game is there with tailback Corey Grant eligible to play this year after sitting out last season as a redshirt. He is a former two-time Alabama Class 6A 100 meters champ.
A pair of freshmen cornerbacks who were also sprint stars in high school, Jonathan Jones and Josh Holsey, should be two of the fastest players on the squad and will have big-play potential if the Tigers decide to give them a chance on returns.
Most of the players who saw action on the coverage teams return this year. With Clark and Parkey having strong seasons last fall, teams the Tigers played didn't have a lot of return opportunities. Opponents averaged less than one punt return per game vs. the Tigers and just over two kickoff returns per contest. With the addition of what looks like it will be a talented group of freshmen to bolster the ranks, the Tigers should have plenty of good options on the coverage teams against this year.
In 2011 the special teams was an area of strength for Coach Gene Chizik's Tigers and there is no reason that can't be the case again this year.