It is a statistic that Auburn kicking specialist Damon Duval says he is well aware of. "It's going to be just like last year," Duval says. "I know special teams are important and Coach Tuberville and the other coaches make it a point that it's important. Our main thing last year going into a game was field position."
Special teams coach Eddie Gran, who also serves as the running backs coach, has many weapons on his unit this season, but says it all starts with his multi-task kicker. "I think right now when you look at special teams, you look at Damon Duval," Gran says. "Kickoffs are so important, so if more than 50 percent of them can go out of the end zone, you won't have to cover them. That was a huge plus for us last year, so if we can keep that going for us, it will be a huge weapon."
Besides handling the kickoff duties, Duval will also handle the place-kicking and punting chores for the Tigers. The 6-0, 184-pound junior earned first-team All-SEC honors as a punter last season and has been tabbed as the ABC Sports preseason All-American at that spot for the 2001 season.
As confident as Gran is with his kickoff teams, he says he is equally at ease with his return teams. "With our returners, you have Tim Carter and Roderick Hood, who are two of the fastest guys on our football team. Everytime they touch the ball they have a chance to score, even if you don't block everybody. That's something we haven't had. Hood really made a difference for us last year. He's got a nose for getting north and south."
Hood, who returned kicks at Carver High (Columbus, Ga.), finally got an opportunity to display his return skills on the collegiate level in the 10th game of the season against Georgia when Carter left the game with a concussion. He returned three kicks that day for 69 yards in the Tigers' 29-26 OT win. Then, against Alabama he earned the coaches' "Special Teams Co-Player of the Week" honors when he returned the second-half kickoff 41 yards against the Tide.
Carter showed why he is one of the conference's best return men with a 100-yard kickoff return for a score against LSU which was the first by a Tiger since 1984. The senior ranks fourth on the Auburn career list with an average of 24.3 yards per kickoff return.
Hood will also return punts, alternating with redshirt freshman Joe Walkins. At Dillard High School in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., the five-foot-nine, 183-pound Walkins averaged 33.6 yards per punt return and 42.5 yards per kickoff return. "Walkins and Hood are guys who can make the first guy miss," Gran says. "That is so important. What we're trying to do on punt returns is get a first down, so if we can get 10 yards then we've done our job. I think we have guys who can do that now."
Walkins, who is also expected to start at the "H" wide receiver position, says he can't wait to make something good happen for his team. "I'm just the kind of guy, if the ball is in my hand I have to make a play," Walkins says. "I want to help the team in anyway possible. The special teams can open a game up for you. We have a great punter and kicker with Damon Duval. Not only that, but we have great athletes who are on the kickoff team, kickoff return, punt team and punt return teams. Just being a part of that, I go out and try to work hard knowing that it may help win a ball game for us."