Ole Miss Football's 10 Keys to 10 Wins—No. 6: Special Teams Productivity
The Ole Miss Rebels didn't perform exceptionally well on special teams last season.
However, Rebel special teams coordinator & linebackers coach Tom Allen knows full well that his unit must show significant improvement in the fall. Fittingly, special teams success is the sixth-most important factor in Ole Miss quest for double-digit wins in 2013.
As impressive as everything was that Freeze pulled off in year one, quite possibly his most brilliant move was electing to redshirt rising senior K Andrew Ritter and rising senior P Tyler Campbell.
Amidst talk of the hurry-up offense and landshark defense, the decision went largely unnoticed to most outside of the Ole Miss program. I feel that Freeze made the redshirt decisions knowing he could potentially have the opportunity to put the football program back on the national map in 2013.
Well, he was exactly right.
While the kicking and punting games should be brighter this fall, there remain three other areas of concern for Ole Miss on special teams: kickoff return defense, kickoff return production and punt return consistency.
Let's take a look at the numbers.
Kicking Game Looking for Consistency, Long Leg
Last fall, the Rebels were extremely inconsistent when the field goal unit was on the field.
A look at the numbers quickly reveals that Rose struggled in during his senior season, especially from 40-plus yards where he only made 6-of-15 attempts (40 percent). On the season, Ole Miss only ranked No. 96 in field goal percentage (64.3 percent).
While Rose did kick a thrilling game-winner against the Razorbacks last season, he only connected on 18-of-28 (64.3 percent) field goals all year. In comparison, Rose made 9-of-11 in 2011 (81.8 percent) and 16-of-18 in 2012 (88.9 percent).
Now enter the redshirt senior, Ritter.
Having assumed kickoff duties in his previous three years, he'll give the Rebs a new look this fall. In fact, he may just be the secret weapon in a few games this year.
A consensus top-15 kicker out of high school from the likes of ESPN, scout.com and rivals.com, Ritter was 8-of-14 his senior year, including four makes in excess of 50 yards (not to mention a 58-yarder).
He hasn't attempted field goals at the college level, but he will provide Ole Miss with exactly what the doctor ordered late in close games. Where the Rebels may have felt pressured to go for a touchdown in lieu of a field goal attempt times in the past, there should be another option in 2013.
Punting Will Benefit from Veteran's Return
In 2012, Miami-Ohio transfer P Jim Broadway was the Ole Miss punter.
Ole Miss ranked No. 13 in the SEC in punting last year, with an average punt of 40.5 yards.
Now welcome back the redshirt senior, Campbell.
The Arkansas-native (44.6YPP career average) enters his final season behind only former Rebel P Mark Hape for the all-time record punting average (46YPP career average). In his first three years at Ole Miss, he averaged a solid 44YPP (2009), 46.4YPP (2010) and 43.6 YPP (2011).
Had Campbell played in 2012 and achieved the same average he did in 2011 (43.6YPPG), he'd have finished the season ranked No. 18 in America. Every yard counts, as the stats show.
Another fact that Rebel fans will appreciate knowing is that out of 175 career punt attempts, he has only been blocked two times in his entire career. He should make a big difference this season.
Looking for Better Kickoff Coverage
In 2012, the Rebels finished dead last in kickoff coverage (38.8 net average kickoff).
In comparison, Auburn ranked atop the conference with an average net kickoff of 43 yards.
While the difference between the leader at 43 yards and Ole Miss at 38.8 yards sounds miniscule at only 4.2 yards per kickoff, giving up four more yards on each kickoff sets opponents up with consistently better field positions.
As has been said before, this is where great teams separate themselves from good ones.
Hoping for Even More on Kick Returns
Ending the season ranked No. 82 in the nation in terms of kickoff return average (20.02 YPR) last year, enhanced production from this unit would allow QB Bo Wallace and co. more real estate from which to work.
Despite the meager numbers last year, true freshman RB Jaylen Walton provided reason for Rebel Nation to believe brighter days are ahead. Fielding the vast majority of punt returns in 2012, Walton averaged 24.7YPR and ranked No. 4 in SEC kickoff return average.
This fall, Ole Miss must find a solid complement to Walten on kick returns. Senior RB Jeff Scott fielded a few returns last season, but the small, speedy back is better-suited staying only at RB.
Fans should expect Walton to continue as a special teams weapon for the Rebels (which he should grow into even more this year), while a new face or two joins him on the field as another option.
Punt Return Production Crucial
Ole Miss must show vast improvement on punt returns for 2013 to go as hoped. It's that simple.
In 2012, WR Korvic Neat only averaged 5.1 yards per return on 16 punt returns. Beyond Neat, former Ole Miss Rebel Philander Moore fielded five returns.
So, what will Ole Miss do this fall to spice up the punt return game?
Scott's explosive speed makes him a top contender, but it's vital he remain healthy to be productive at running back. Other options include WRs Nick Brassell and Q. Mireles.
From what the athletic newcomer, Mireles, showed this spring, he may be the perfect choice.
Regardless, consistent production is paramount on punt returns this season. With the athletes and talent level now in Oxford, the Rebels should expect an average around 10 yards per return now.
Putting It All Together
While Ritter and Campbell should easily boost production and consistency on kick and punt teams, kickoff coverage, kickoff return and punt return teams must show drastic improvement for Ole Miss to have a special year in Oxford.
Look for new names and faces to come out of summer camp, capable of giving Rebel special teams the collective boost in the arm it didn't have last season.
Having lost three close games in 2012, the little things could absolutely be the difference this fall.
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