AU Spring Football Preview: Part Five

The fifth in our ongoing series takes a look at Auburn's special teams heading into spring practice.

Auburn, Ala.--With holder Matthew Motley the only special teams performer gone from the 2007 season, Coach Eddie Gran sees plenty of reason for optimism with sophomores Wes Byrum and Ryan Shoemaker returning after solid freshman seasons for the Tigers.

"I think if you were coming back and you had everything returning and just had a holder to replace then you're in pretty good shape," Gran says. "I think we can get by with that. We've got a couple right now that we're working that our guys really like. I know by September we'll be in pretty good shape."

One of the country's top freshmen kickers, Byrum had a very good year for the Tigers as he connected on 17-23 field goals, including a game-winner against the Florida Gators on the road. He was also 33-34 on extra points to lead the Tigers in scoring with 84 total points for the year. That tied him for 10th in Auburn history for points scored in a single season and places him fifth on the list of single season points scored for kickers.

Ryan Shoemaker overcame a dislocated elbow to have a productive freshman season.

Not to be outdone, Shoemaker had one of the best first seasons in Auburn history for a punter. Averaging 42.4 yards per kick on 49 punts, Shoemaker downed 16 inside the 20-yard line with only three touchbacks. Gran says both Byrum and Shoemaker put themselves into position to be among the best ever at Auburn provided they keep improving.

"We didn't know about last year, but they really got their feet wet," Gran says. "I thought they did a good job. It was probably a B for both of them. It could have been an A easily, but inconsistency probably hurt us the worst. Wes getting hurt really hurt us. They are both working hard right now in winter conditioning. I just look for them to continue to get better. With three years left each that's what we're looking for. I think we've got a chance to have two of the best in the league if not in the country."

Both will have plenty of competition as several kickers remain on Auburn's roster heading into the spring, but are likely well behind Byrum after his solid first year. The same can't be said for Shoemaker though as fellow sophomore Patrick Tatum got some experience in 2007 and proved to be a very capable backup.

Patrick Tatum has a very strong leg and could push Shoemaker in the spring.

Punting 16 times, Tatum averaged 43.4 yards per attempt with nine of his kicks downed inside the 20. Gran says this spring will be an interesting time for both returning starters to see how they handle the competition the second time around.

"That's huge for competition," Gran says. "We're going to have guys pushing Wesley, too. The competition at punting is great because they really work well together. If things weren't going well, we were talking about that consistency, we yanked him and put the other guy in. This isn't a free ride. It's not for a running back and it should be that way for kickers, too. If you're not producing then you don't play. It's a pretty simple deal."

Perhaps the biggest need in spring practice will be to work on the kickoff coverage team. Last season that was one of the disappointing aspects of the team as several big returns cost the Tigers dearly during the season. A leg injury to Byrum was part of the problem for much of the year, but Gran says more than that and it's something he plans to address immediately beginning with spring practice.

"I think Wes, especially at the end of the year, did a great job with hang time and where we needed it to be," Gran says. "It was our kickoff coverage. That was just me coaching and not getting it explained obviously. We had too many guys stopping and pulling up and not running through people. You really have to play with a violent attitude and I don't think that was there. It's going to change. We've got to find guys that want it.

"We were stopping and you can't stop. We've got to make things happen on kickoff coverage. I think that will change. I feel like we really put our defense in a bad position four or five times this year in critical times. We put them in way too many positions, probably 15 times, where they were starting at the 35. That's ridiculous. We can't do that. We're going to lose the field position there."

Robert Dunn showed a great deal of improvement in the punt return game last season.

The Tigers bring back punt returner Robert Dunn as well as leading kickoff returner Mario Fannin. On 32 punts last season Dunn averaged a solid 9.4 yards per return, the highest average since Carnell Williams averaged 11.4 yards in 2004. Along with Patrick Lee, Fannin gave the Tigers a good return game, but not what the Tigers expected in 2007. He averaged 21 yards per return on 19 attempts, but help should be coming in the form of senior Tristan Davis.

One of the country's top kickoff returners in 2006, Davis averaged 27 yards on 28 attempts for a total return yardage of 756 yards. That total is the most in Auburn history and his average was the highest for an Auburn player with at least 10 returns since James Brooks in 1979. Coming back from two foot injuries suffered last season, Davis is expected to be closer to full speed in the spring and fully recovered in time to be full speed for the 2008 season.

Auburn will open spring practice on Feb. 26th with the annual A-Day game scheduled for March 29 at 1 p.m. at Jordan-Hare Stadium.


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