Auburn Football Preview: Special Teams

In another in our series of previews of the 2008 Auburn football Tigers, the kicking game is featured.

Auburn, Ala.--Tommy Tuberville is a strong believer in the importance of the kicking game and the Auburn head coach says he has high expectations for this part of his 2008 football squad.

Eddie Gran, the assistant coach in charge of special teams, notes he is looking forward to seeing what his group can do in 2008 after having mixed feelings about the 2007 performance.

Although they are just sophomores, the Tigers have a pair of experienced performers to call on in punter Ryan Shoemaker and kicker Wes Byrum. Both have made preseason all conference teams.

Ryan Shoemaker will be challenged for his starting spot.

After spending a season in training as a redshirt, Shoemaker averaged 42.4 yards per punt last year and was named a second team All-SEC player as well as a first team Freshman All-SEC selection.

Shoemaker's punting average was the second best of any player in the conference and in nine games he nailed a punt of 50 yards or longer. He placed 16 punts inside the opposition's 20-yard line on the way to earning freshman All-America status.

However, despite the accolades, the sophomore has a major challenge on his hands from walk-on Clinton Durst out of Destin, Fla., who was named MVP for special teams in the spring game. Durst, who was a soccer player in high school, had never played in an organized football game prior to the A-Day contest, but Tuberville notes that he newcomer has a legitimate chance to win a starting assignment. Gran agrees.

"The biggest jump in the spring was Clinton Durst," Gran says. "Statistically, he was really close to Ryan being the No. 1 guy. Ryan has done it in the game, but he could use a little bit more consistency. Ryan is still our punter, but I think there is going to be a great battle.

Clinton Durst punts in an August practice.

"Patrick Tatum has kicked better this summer," Gran says. "Losing his (backup) job made him better. Competition brings out the best in everybody and we will find out early who is going to be the most productive early and we will find out who our punter is."

Byrum attracted national attention last fall as a true freshman for his game-winning field goal on the last play of the game at Florida. He made his first try from 43 yards out and it appeared the Tigers had pulled out a dramatic victory, but Florida head coach Urban Meyer signalled a timeout just before the ball was snapped by Robert Shiver forcing Byrum to have to make another kick. Byrum's re-kick was good as the Tigers knocked off the fourth-ranked Gators 20-17.

For the season Byrum made 17-23 field goals despite playing through an injury he suffered making a tackle on the opening kickoff of the season. He was named to the second team Freshman All-America squad and named Byrum to its third team Freshman All-America squad.

Wes Byrum played a big role for the Tigers as a true freshman.

For field goals and extra points, the Tigers must replace half of the Shiver to Matthew Motley kick snap combo. Walk-on Clayton Crofoot could be the man to take over for sure-handed holder Motley. John Cubelic and backup quarterback Neil Caudle are also possibilities. Josh Harris and incoming freshman Dax Dellenbach will be the backup snappers.

"Shiver is probably the best deep snapper we have had here," Gran says. "He is a guy who will probably have a chance at the next level. I think that our backup now is Josh Harris. He has had a great summer. We have Dax coming in who will redshirt this summer and will probably be battling Josh next year for the number one spot."

Morgan Hull, who was a backup kickoff man to Byrum last season as a true freshman walk-on, will get a chance to win the starting kickoff assignment this year and is also the number two field goal kicker.

"Morgan Hull is kicking really, really well," Gran says. "He has great height. I think we are solid there. Hull is kicking off a lot better and Wesley has had a great summer kicking off. Wesley is healthy and that is the biggest thing. I think we are solid there."

Auburn struggled early in the season with kickoff coverage, an area that improved later in the year. However, it is obvious that Gran is still irritated about what happened in that phase of the kicking game in 2007.

"On our kickoff coverage we were awful last year because of coaching," he says. "It is my fault. I didn't personnel it right and the kids didn't believe in it. That goes back to coaching. Our kicker got hurt, but that's no excuse.

"We got better during the season," Gran adds. "From what we did in the spring I think we will be better in kickoff coverage. I know we will be."

In the return game, Gran will have experienced players to put on the field. Robert Dunn has been the full-time punt returner for the past two seasons. He averaged 9.4 yards on 32 returns as a junior, up from 5.5 yards per return the previous season. Last year receiver Chris Slaughter, who is a sophomore this season, returned two punts for a total of nine yards.

"We are going to take a look at Phillip Pierre-Louis and Harry Adams and a guy we can definitely put back there in case of an emergency is Jerraud Powers," Gran says of the punt returners. "On kickoff returns it will be Tristan Davis, Ben Tate, James Swinton, Phillip Pierre-Louis and Harry Adams."

Adams and Pierre-Louis are a pair of speedy freshmen from Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Pierre-Louis will play receiver and Adams will line up at cornerback with Powers.

Tristan Davis is hoping for a healthy and productive senior season.

Davis, who is bouncing back from two injuries in the same foot that ruined his 2007 season, is a threat to make a big play on kickoff returns. He has an impressive average of 25.7 yards on his 31 collegiate returns. His average of 27.0 in 2006 is the fourth best for a single-season in Auburn history.

"I can't wait to get back out there and return kicks again," says Davis, who will also figure into the mix at tailback.

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