The head coach brought in Jay Boulware from his staff at Iowa State to coordinate the special teams and says that he has a high level of confidence in Boulware's ability to do a good job with that assignment.
As the Tigers prepare to hit the practice field on Wednesday for the first time since spring training ended, Boulware says all phases of the kicking game need improvement, but sees potential.
"Spring has always been a time for us to hone in on drill work and try to develop the base and fundamentals that we want our guys to be able to use when the season comes around," Boulware says.
"I think we made tremendous progress," he says. "We're not where we need to be right now, but I'm encouraged by what I saw as I go back and look at it over and over again. I'm encouraged by what I saw from the kids, and I think we'll be fine."
One of the more interesting competitions for playing time could be at the punter spot where walk-on Clinton Durst won the job last year ahead of returning starter Ryan Shoemaker, who was considered an All-SEC candidate. Shoemaker is a junior and Durst has been reclassified as a senior.
"Coming out of spring, Durst was ahead of Shoemaker," Boulware says. "I thought Shoemaker made some progress. Neither one of the young men, in my opinion, used technique the way they should be doing at this point in their careers. They are juniors and seniors right now. To me, when you see a junior and senior I expect to see phenomenal play, phenomenal technique. I expect those guys to be NFL ready. Neither one of our punters are NFL ready, and that's kind of disconcerting to me right now to be quite honest with you.
"Obviously, we've got a guy in Durst who has All-SEC capability in terms of his distance, but there's so much more to punting than getting good distance and hang-time," the coach contends. "You've got to be pretty sound with your technique and be able to place the ball in particular places, and I just don't see that from our kids right now."
Boulware says he expects either Durst or Shoemaker to win the starting job. If needed, sophomore Chandler Brooks can punt in addition to being a place-kicker. Brooks, a sophomore from Grissom High in Huntsville, tried out for the team prior to spring training this year. "He's a walk-on and he's been doing a decent job as well," Boulware says of Brooks.
The coach points out that Auburn fans will notice a difference this season in how the Tigers cover punts. "We're a little bit different," he says. "There are a handful of colleges around the country that are doing something similar to us. What we try to do is take advantage of the college rule. The college rule does not require you to leave after the ball is kicked like in the NFL. We give our guys a chance to go out and actually release prior to the ball being kicked."
Boulware says that key numbers for the punting game include 2.1 seconds, 4.0 seconds and 6.1. The goal will be to get the ball from the snapper to the punter in 2.1 seconds. The coach wants to see a minimum of four seconds hang time on punts.
"We feel like you've got about six seconds to get down the field to the punt returner assuming the ball is 40 to 45 yards, in that neighborhood," Boulware says. "In six seconds I think most of our guys should get down there if we do a good job of protecting and getting out as soon as we can.
"We take advantage of that rule, and we think it's a heck of a deal," Boulware notes. "We stress that to our players that 6.1 seconds is about the operation time that you have to be around the punt returner."
Coach Jay Boulware
Boulware won't even venture a guess on who will be returning punts this season for the Tigers. "We're still developing those young men," he says. "We've kind of come into a unique position that we've lost two returners (Robert Dunn on punts, Tristan Davis, kickoffs) that have been returning here for quite some time now. They are not just two returners, but two really good returners in my opinion. I would have taken those two kids any day anywhere I've ever been.
"To say that we're going to be able to replace those kids immediately is a stretch," the coach says. "The Auburn fans have been used to seeing some pretty good play from those young men in the past. I'm trying to find somebody who has the enthusiasm, the energy and the ability to do what those young men that have done for us in the past here. I think that's going to be a work in progress that is going to carry well into two-a-days.
"Anytime you have somebody who has done a job for three or four years at a particular place there is most likely not very much depth behind them because people don't feel like they've got a chance to do it because those guys have been doing it for so long. That's kind of where we're at right now."
Dunn averaged 16.0 yards per punt return last season and took one back for a touchdown. Davis returned two kickoffs for scores and averaged 27.4 yards per return.
"There is no one guy in particular at any of those positions," Boulware notes. "I have yet to see anyone out there who has been able to display what I'm looking for or what we're looking for in a returner. We want a kick returner who is going to lead the country. We want a punt returner who is smart and obviously has the ability to catch balls no matter where they go and save us field position."
Two other players who were punt returners are also gone. Jerraud Powers skipped his fifth-year senior season for the NFL and Chris Slaughter left the team prior to spring practice. The Tigers do return an experienced kickoff returner with Mario Fannin back as a junior. Philip Pierre-Louis, who was injured on the opening kickoff return of the 2008 season, is another possibility if he can make a return from the knee injury that kept him out of spring practice.
Justin Albert, a redshirt freshman running back, was an outstanding return man at Prattville High School. Some other possibilities as return men include Quindarius Carr, Ben Tate, Onterio McCalebb and Terrell Zachery.
"We're open to everybody," Boulware notes. "We're open to looking at some of the signees coming in, and maybe there are some guys that may develop. Who knows how it's going to turn out, but it's an open race right now."
Getting the kickoffs consistently deep was an issue last season. Wes Byrum is back as a junior and will try to bounce back from a sophomore slump following a very impressive freshman season. Last year walk-on Morgan Hull spent part of the season as the kickoff man. He is still in the mix along with newcomer Brooks. Those same three players will also try to win the field goal assignment.
"The kickoff guy for us right now and field goal guy, both, I just think that we really lack the consistency with the field goal kicking that I would expect to see from a junior, or a junior and senior group," Boulware says. "That's really what we have. We start off every practice--Coach Chizik is a stickler--on field goals and we try to make every field goal at the start of practice. We're under pressure, the field goal block team is going against the field goal team, and we're kicking under pressure. All we take is eight of them every day at the start of practice.
Wes Byrum earned Freshman All-SEC honors two eeasons ago.
"Coach Chizik and myself have been around guys who will nail all eight of those," Boulware says. "We can't even nail all eight. We got better toward the end of the semester in the spring. Three times we nailed seven. Out of 15 practices we nailed seven of the eight three times, but we have yet to nail eight of the eight. It's not like it's eight of them that are really tough field goals where you're putting them at 50-plus yards or anything like that. It's usually one, maybe two from the 40-50 range and the rest of them are under 40 yards. When we can't do that consistently and that is what concerns me because that tells me that our kicking is sporadic at best.
"And then the kickoff, the guy with the strongest leg, without saying any names, he might kick it five yards deep in the end zone or he might kick it 10 rows high in the stands. What am I going to do with that? I don't want to put Auburn fans through that, much less put myself through that and have Coach Chizik looking at me like, ‘What the heck was that?'
"The next guy, he's solid, but in terms of having the leg that I look for which is at least get it to the goal line or somewhere between the goal line and the five-yard line with decent hang time to allow us to cover that...I don't see that right now. We'll be hard pressed to find somebody that will approach a four-second hang time even with the shorter kicks. That's a concern for me right now."
Defending kickoff returns has become more of a challenge in recent years with the NCAA backing up the kickoff teams five yards.
"It's placed a tremendous premium on kickoff coverage," Boulware says. "A lot of people try to do a number of different things, but whether they're gimmicky or there are some guys that try to put it in your mitts and say, ‘Here we go,' it all depends a lot of times on your returner. I want our guys to be good against whoever we play against.
"Obviously, there are some good returners out there that are going to give us more problems than others, but the thing that we've got to be good at is getting down field and understanding what the return team is doing and fitting our gaps the way we're supposed to fit regardless of where the ball is going or how low it is or how deep it's not. That's kind of what we're focusing on with our kickoff cover guys.
"If you can't cover kicks, it's exposed now," Boulware says. "You're allowing guys to get out to the 40-yard line consistently when they have a good kickoff return team."
When Auburn is running back kickoffs, Tiger fans might see some very large guys on the row of blockers closest to the two deep returners. Boulware calls those guys his fullbacks and says they will play a major role in the kicking game.
"Our fullbacks have to be the toughest kids on the team," he says. "They're the guys, in my opinion, that set the mentality of the unit. They're the final phase or the final wave of blockers that we have prior to getting to our two returners. We want them to pave a way. We want people to look at those guys coming and either take us on or they're going to try to run around us. You usually see one or the other. That's just who they are. They're the toughest, meanest guys on the team.
"They don't have to necessarily be a big guy like you probably saw in the spring," Boulware adds. "We work a number of different guys there, but it definitely has to be somebody that I might be feeding lead to. That's what we're looking for and that's what we've got to have."
Other possibilities include tight ends Bailey Woods and Philip Lutzenkirchen. "We've got another kid coming in (walk-on Jake Lembke) who is just a long snapper," Boulware says. "I look forward to seeing what he can do. We're going to have some good competition there." Dax Dellenbach, a scholarship deep snapper who redshirted last fall as a freshman, left the team this summer and is not expected to return.
"The competition for our deep snapper is still up in the air," says Boulware, who adds, " Your guess is as good as mine. I do know that the kids that were here this spring know what I expect."
Clayton Crofoot handled the holds for field goals and extra points last season.
An often overlooked component of the kicking game is the holder, but Boulware is aware of the importance of having the right guy for that assignment. Clayton Crofoot is the returning starter at the position.
"Crofoot is the only player in the specialists that I know for sure he is going to do his job," Boulware says. "He's done a phenomenal job, he's smart, he's got some experience doing it since he's been doing it here for a while and I like everything about Crofoot. I really do. He's exactly what we want in terms of a specialist.
"Obviously it is unusual to have a holder that it is all he does. Crofoot did a phenomenal job for us in the spring. That's the only position that I know for sure. You can tell everybody, ‘Hey, we've got a holder!' Kicker, I don't know. Punter, I don't know. Long snapper, I don't know. Kick returner and punt returner, I don't know. But the holder is Crofoot."