The competition between Kevin Phillips and Ian Shannon to become Auburn’s starting punter is much more important than many football fans might believe. During Auburn’s 2013 SEC championship season, the Tigers finished at No. 9 nationally in net punting. The season before they were No. 31 and last season Auburn finished at No. 67.
When you consider that more than 70 percent of special teams play occurs during kickoffs and punts, it is easy to see why so many coaches place a premium on the kicking game. Last season Daniel Carlson handled the bulk of Auburn’s kicks plus the punting, a dual role the Auburn coaching staff does not want Carlson to have to deal with in 2015.
Ian Shannon was signed by the Tigers out of Marietta, Ga., High School.
Special teams coach Scott Fountain says he expects to name the starting punter within the next week, having monitored the close competition between Phillips and Shannon.
Phillips might hold the edge at this point having gone through spring practice with Auburn and having junior college game experience under his belt.
Freeing Carlson to focus on his place-kicking responsibilities should allow the sophomore to become more consistent and polished. Selecting the right punter will be essential for an Auburn team with an average national ranking of No. 71 in punting average over the past six years.
During the Tommy Tuberville Era (1999-2008), Auburn consistently fielded a quality kicking game. The team’s national average in net punting was No. 15 over a 10-year period, never dropping below 23rd nationally. Since 2008, Auburn’s average national ranking in net punting has dropped to No. 45, cracking the Top 25 only twice in six seasons.
During Auburn’s second preseason scrimmage the session began with a focus on special teams. Gus Malzahn addressed the competition between Phillips and Shannon. “They’re both talented,” the head coach said. “They’re both capable of being very successful at this level. They’re competing every day.
“We’re trying to put them in situations so they can feel that pressure,” Malzahn pointed out. “We did that. We let them punt when there is live up front and thought that was good. That is always the best ways to evaluate guys.”
The kicking game plays a major role in field position, something Auburn needs to improve in 2015. During the national championship 2010 season, 35.1 percent of the possessions by Auburn’s opponent began at least 80 yards away from the Tigers’ end zone. Last season the number dropped to just 21.1 percent, which placed even more stress on a struggling defense.
Special teams make up more than 18 percent of the snaps taken during a game. Of the average 30 special teams plays during the course of a college contest, the hidden yardage obtained from the kicking game can often influence the ebb and flow. Having a competitive edge in this area will only make Auburn a better overall team in 2015.
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