With the rule change where the ball is spotted on the 30-yard line on kickoffs, special teams will become more of a factor in football games this season. Auburn's coaching staff did an exceptional job preparing the Tigers for last year's clock rule changes and they have worked on kick coverage and returns more so this season than any other. Coach Tommy Tuberville knows the value of special teams play and how it can translate to victories on the field.
Last season special teams played a pivotal role in several Auburn victories. Against LSU, the Auburn Tigers played a field position game, which was aided by Kody Bliss and his 48.2-yard per punt average. LSU's average starting field position in its last seven possessions of the game was its own 18-yard line. LSU managed to move the ball at least 47 yards in four of those possessions but because Jamarcus Russell and the offense started each possession deep in their own territory, they failed to take a snap from the Auburn red zone.
Against eventual BCS National Champion Florida, John Vaughn connected on four of five field goals and Auburn blocked a Gator punt resulting in a Tre Smith touchdown. In a game Auburn failed to score an offensive touchdown, special teams came up with 19 valuable points. Kody Bliss averaged 57 yards per punt against South Carolina, a game the Tigers won by seven points, and Auburn converted on an onsides kick that resulted in a touchdown.
During the final regular season game against the Alabama Crimson Tide, Kody Bliss averaged 50.2 yards per punt. Alabama's average starting field position that day was its own 25-yard line. Auburn's average starting field position was its own 36-yard line.
Ryan Shoemaker, a redshirt freshman from Oak Mountain High School, will be counted on to replace Bliss as the starting punter.
Special Teams Myth...
How many times have you heard special teams accounts for a third of the game? Last season special teams accounted for 16.7 percent of Auburn's actual plays on the field. Though the one-third comment might be a stretch, special teams has always been a major factor in football. For Auburn, special teams averaged 23.6 plays per game last season with the majority of those plays coming from punting and kicking game.
Fifty-one of Matt Clark's 66 kickoffs went for a touchback which meant Auburn had to defend roughly one kick return per game. Considering the offensive struggles Auburn suffered through in 2006, having Matt Clark was an absolute blessing. Another special team strength was the 45.7 punting average chalked up by Bliss. It was the third best punting average over the last 25 years at Auburn. Finally for Auburn, Vaughn's 83 percent field goal percentage was the third best percentage by an Auburn place-kicker in the last 25 seasons.
Auburn's trio of senior kickers was one of the primary reasons why Auburn was able to win 11 games last season and replacing all three will be a major task for 2007.
True freshman Wes Byrum from St. Thomas Aquinas is a strong-legged kicker who may be the replacement for Vaughn and Clark.
Impact of the return game...
With the rule change in the placement of the football on kickoffs, we should see an increase in "impact plays" within the kicking game. Looking over the past four decades, this current decade has been the most productive in terms of touchdown returns. During the decade of the 70s the top 10 kick returners in the nation from each season totaled 114 touchdowns, or 11.4 per season. That average dropped to 8.6 per season during the 1980s increasing to 12.6 during the 1990s. Thus far from 2000-2006 the elite 10 from each season has averaged 16.3 touchdowns per season.
Touchdowns scored on punt returns are also higher during the current decade. During the 1970s the top 10 punt returners from each season averaged 7.3 touchdowns. The average decreased during the 1980s to 5.6 and went back up to 7.2 during the 1990s. From 2000-2006 the top 10 players in punt returns have averaged 10.6 touchdowns per season. Despite the increase in touchdown returns across the nation Auburn has not been as fortunate.
During the decade of the 1960s Auburn had four punt returns for touchdowns and two kick returns. The Tigers had three kick returns for touchdowns and four punt returns for touchdowns during the decade of the 70s. From 1980-1989 Auburn returned four kickoffs for touchdowns and three punt returns. The 90s were not a good decade for the Tigers with three punt returns for touchdowns but no kick returns for a score. From 2000-2006 Auburn has two kick returns for touchdowns and no punt returns for touchdowns.
Under Tuberville Auburn has been very productive on kick returns. Compared to other Auburn teams, five of his eight teams have finished with at least the eighth highest average per return over the last 20 years. The 2005 team was second in the nation in kick returns and was fourth in the nation last season. There have only been two kick returns for touchdowns by a Tiger over the last 25 years and both came under Tuberville.
Comparative to national statistics, Auburn has struggled in punt returns under Tuberville with its highest ranking coming in 2004 when the Tigers were 25th in the nation. Comparing the Tigers to other Auburn teams over the last 20 years, three of Tuberville's teams have finished in the top five. The last Auburn Tiger to return a punt for a touchdown was Robert Baker in 1996 against South Carolina. It should be noted that Tre Smith was credited with a punt return for a touchdown against the Florida, but that was following a recovered blocked punt.
Overall, special teams under Tuberville have improved during his tenure as the head coach. During his first four years Auburn's field goal percentage was only 58 percent, which has increased to 71 percent over the last four years. Auburn has converted on 314 of 316 point after attempts under Tuberville. During the eight years prior to Tuberville's arrival Auburn missed 14 extra point attempts. Five of the top 10 punt averages at Auburn over the last 25 years have come under Tuberville. Auburn has averaged 43.1 yards per punt over the last eight seasons compared to 41.4 yards per punt over the 20 years prior to Tuberville's arrival.