Checking in with Auburn's special teams

THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN winning and losing in the Cougs' season opener at Auburn might not ultimately come down to offense or defense. If after three hours on Aug. 31, it's all relatively equal between the two teams, the difference might instead be found on special teams -- a long field goal here, a big punt return there. Here's a snapshot look at how the Tigers shape up on special teams.

Scott Fountain, Auburn's tight ends and special teams coach, returns to the sidelines after a five-year absence from the field. He's the lone holdover Gus Malzahn retained from Gene Chizik's staff.

Auburn looks pretty solid with kicker Cody Parkey and punter Steven Clark.

Parkey was 11-14 on field goals last season (78.6 percent) and he booted 33 touchbacks on his 48 kickoffs.

But his accuracy tends to diminish more than you might think on potentially longer FG attempts and he didn't get many tries at those.

For a guy with 33 touchbacks, his season long field goal last year was only 46 yards.

WITH THE PUNTER Clark, it's not that he kills it. It's that he skies it and uses the sidelines exceedingly well.

Out of 70 punts last season, opponents returned a mere five of them.

And that's in large part made moot how good the gunners and coverage team has needed to be in punt return defense.

Clark's complete stat line: 70 punts, 39.8 yard average, 37 fair catches, 15 inside-the-20, 4 touchbacks. Clark, not surprisingly, has been a Ray Guy Award finalist and semifinalist the past two seasons.

TURNING TO kickoff and punt returns, Auburn lost kickoff return specialist Onterio McCalebb to graduation, (23 KOR, 523 yards, 22.7 ypr, 1 touchdown).

Auburn has a number of players in the mix to replace him, including Ricardo Louis, Jonathan Jones and Josh Holsey. But no one seized the roles in spring ball.

Quan Bray is arguably the pre-fall camp favorite to be the primary return man for both punts and kicks.

He has good open field skills but has been criticized in the past for being too conservative on punt returns, signaling for a fair catch when there were yards that could have been made.

He also muffed a punt last year that led to the deciding points in Auburn's 12-10 loss to LSU.

Will WSU's season opener at Auburn also be decided on special teams? We're about 2 1/2 months from finding out.

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