Tigers Trying to Improve Special Teams Play

Coach Gus Malzahn says the Tigers have work to do in the kicking game as they prepare for Ole Miss.

Auburn, Ala.--If Saturday’s showdown of highly-ranked teams in Oxford is close, special teams play could be a deciding factor.

As Auburn travels to Ole Miss, Coach Gus Malzahn said his football team is aware that it needs to make improvements in the kicking game.

In the Tigers’ 42-35 victory over South Carolina last week they made two major mistakes on special teams. The first, a fumbled punt return by Quan Bray, led to a touchdown for the Gamecocks.

The second miscue was allowing South Carolina to recover an onside kick in the third quarter with the score tied at 35-35. An interception in the end zone by Jonathan Jones prevented the Gamecocks from turning the big play into points, but it took away an offensive possession from the Tigers, who only had eight of them the entire game on a night in which they scored six touchdowns.

Bray’s punt returns have been an area of strength for the Tigers this season as he leads the nation in that category. Against the Gamecocks he only got once chance to make a return and gained 28 yards before a good defensive play punched the ball out of his grasp.

“We had a momentum play and then we gave them the momentum right back,” Malzahn said. “We have got to protect the football. That is two games in a row on special teams that we have coughed the ball up giving the other offense a short field and put our defense in a bind.”

Ricardo Louis fumbled a kickoff return in Auburn’s loss at Mississippi State that set up a touchdown for the Bulldogs in the second half that thwarted the Tigers’ comeback attempt.

“In some areas I think we have improved,” Malzahn said of special teams play. “We are trying to address the things that we have not been as good in. We have got to get better in the kickoff return. There’s no doubt about that, and that would be a focus.”

The Tigers are ranked 12th among SEC teams in kickoff returns with a 20.0 average, which is actually less than the team’s punt return average of 23.5.

“Any time it’s kickoff return, it’s the whole unit,” Malzahn said of the group’s struggles. “It’s not usually just one thing. It’s getting this cleaned up so everybody is on the same page.

“There is a lot more to kickoff return than everybody thinks,” the coach added. “That’s usually the other team putting their best athletes out there and they’re flying down and doing some different things, but we have to do a better job.

“I think the big factor of (Saturday) night was we made a bad decision trying to bounce one, but then we had a penalty, a block in the back penalty, and got the ball on the nine-yard line so we just have to get it out there where it’s normal field position.”

Redshirt freshman Daniel Carlson has been a good addition to the lineup as kicker. He has made 10-13 field goal tries and has 33 touchbacks on 45 kickoffs. However, his punting hasn’t been as good.

Daniel Carlson has shown he has a strong leg as a kicker.

The Tigers are 13th in the SEC in net punting at 36.8 yards per attempt, an area of the team’s play that was a strength in recent seasons with Steven Clark on the roster.

Ranked No. 3 in the first playoff poll, the Tigers will take on No. 4 Ole Miss on Saturday at 6 p.m. CDT at Vaught-Hemingway in Oxford with the Tigers needing to step up their special teams performance against an opponent that has been very difficult to score points against the year.

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