Auburn Football: Inside the Tigers' Revamped Special Teams Unit
One consistent feature throughout Auburn's surprise 2013 run to the SEC Championship and a spot in the BCS National Championship Game was the Tigers' excellent special teams play.
Several veteran specialists were difference makers for Auburn last season, from deadly accurate punter Steven Clark to punt (and field-goal) return speedster Chris Davis.
While the Tigers return considerable depth in almost every position on the depth chart for 2014, head coach Gus Malzahn and special teams coordinator Scott Fountain will have to find a new kicker, punter, return men and an extra point specialist for what they hope will be another championship-winning season.
As Auburn gets ready for its final few practices of spring camp, let's take a look at the Tigers' revamped special teams unit for the 2014 season.
After three years of starting as Auburn's placekicker, Cody Parkey has graduated from the Plains and now has his sights on the NFL after winning the Senior Bowl's Most Outstanding Specialist Award. Parkey finished his Auburn career ranked in the top five of all major kicking categories.
While his field goal accuracy—especially from distance—was not as sharp toward the end of his college career, Parkey led the country in touchbacks on kickoffs and was close to automatic on extra point attempts in his final season for the Tigers.
After Fountain elected not to give his backup specialists any game experience last season in favor of redshirting them, freshman Daniel Carlson will be the next man up for Auburn at kicker. The Colorado native was rated the No. 1 kicker in the country when he signed with Auburn in 2013. A power kicker in high school, Carlson posted Parkey-like numbers with 54 touchbacks as a senior at The Classical Academy in Colorado Springs.
As the only scholarship kicker on the roster, Carlson is almost guaranteed to be Auburn's starting kicker next season. Fountain told AL.com's Joel Erickson in January he was pleased with the work the young kicker showed last season:
"I think Daniel's a little bit ahead of Jimmy right now," Fountain said. "But I think we're going to be in good shape with them. We'll see where we are in the spring, but I'm glad to have them there. They've been in the program, know what to expect."
Steven Clark was perhaps the most overlooked weapon in Auburn's arsenal over the last few seasons as his deadly accurate, high-arcing punts flipped precious field position time and time again. Only 22 of the three-time Ray Guy Award semifinalist's 207 career punts were ever returned, and those who were fortunate enough to return them averaged only five yards at a time.
Clark finished fourth all-time in the Auburn record books with 8,423 total yards and will be a tough act to follow after three years of consistent service to the special teams unit.
Like with Carlson, Auburn has another No. 1 recruit waiting to replace a tenured veteran like Steven Clark. Jimmy Hutchinson averaged almost 40 yards per punt as a senior at Harrison High School in Kennesaw, Ga., and arrived on the Plains as another powerful leg for the future. Hutchinson was originally rumored to greyshirt soon after his signing in 2013, but he arrived on the Plains last summer and spent an entire year as a redshirted backup to one of the nation's top punters.
Hutchinson has impressed teammates and coaches alike during spring camp, but Malzahn said earlier in camp he is ready to see how the two highly touted freshmen handle in game situations.
"They’re going to be new, that’s my biggest concern,” Malzahn said, per the Montgomery Advertiser's James Crepea. "But we’re trying to put them through as many game-like situations as we can with the pressure on and all that during the spring. It’s just a matter of getting experience.”
Heisman Trophy finalist Tre Mason may have been known more for his success out of Auburn's backfield, but he also had an impressive career out of his own end zone. The NFL-bound Mason finished sixth all-time in career rushing yards and kickoff return yards. His performance as a returner in 2013 mirrored his breakout freshman season in 2011 as he averaged 26 yards per return and ran a kick back for six in both seasons.
Mason brought the right amount of speed, agility and strength needed to be a special teams weapon, and now Auburn will have to replace not only its starting running back but one of its most successful return men in recent seasons.
Auburn has fielded close almost a dozen returners during media viewing windows this spring in the hopes of finding the next Tre Mason. Here are three of the top contenders for the job:
- The speedy Corey Grant entered spring camp with a new attitude, and he is out to prove he can run between the tackles and become an all-around back like Mason. Not only is "Tail Lights" getting quality first-team reps as Auburn's No. 1 rusher, he is also getting a lot of work as a kick returner. Grant returned a kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown in Auburn's record-setting day at Tennessee last season and made the most out of his five chances to run one back last season.
- Like Grant, Cameron Artis-Payne is vying to replace Mason as the Tigers' feature back while also getting reps this spring as a kick returner. Artis-Payne did not record a single return in his first season at Auburn, but he would bring a skill set similar to Mason's on special teams. He might not have as much speed as Grant, but he remains an intriguing possibility to Auburn's return battle with his vision as a ball carrier.
- Johnathan "Rudy" Ford could be the biggest wild card of the kick return race. Ford made an impression on coaches as a running back before his move to the secondary last season. Although he is staying on defense for 2014, the coaching staff could use Ford's skills as an offensive player on special teams this season. He has experience as a return man from his time at New Hope (Ala.) High School, which could be a major factor as the position battle continues.
Chris Davis will go down in Auburn history as the Tiger who ran a missed field goal 109 yards for the game-winning score against Alabama, but the departed cornerback was one of the nation's top punt returners in his senior season. He finished 2013 ranked third nationally in punt return average, aided by his 70-yard return against Florida Atlantic and his 85-yard touchdown against Tennessee that started as a muffed return.
Davis kept asking Auburn's new coaching staff in 2013 to give him a chance as a punt returner, and the move paid off tremendously in several big games. Now Malzahn and Fountain must find another new punt returner to fill the shoes of the newest Auburn legend.
- Quan Bray has the most in-game experience as both a kick and punt returner for Auburn heading into the 2014 season, but his statistics are underwhelming. Bray had 12 returns last season for only 61 total yards and has never averaged more than eight yards per return in his Auburn career. While Davis' punt return style was risky in the way he almost always tried to make a play, no matter the coverage, Bray could benefit from being more decisive like Davis with his first step instead of shuffling from side to side in search of a hole.
- Davis' spots at boundary cornerback and punt returner could both be filled by Jonathon Mincy. The rising senior is preparing for his fourth season as a starter in the secondary, but he could find a new role in Auburn's special teams. According to the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer's Ryan Black, Mincy approached Fountain about getting a chance at punt returner and is ready to take on the challenge.
- D'haquille Williams has turned heads with his work at wide receiver so far this spring, and the former No. 1 JUCO player could make an instant impact in Auburn's special teams unit. Williams is an agile receiver for his 6'3" frame and is one of the most intriguing possibilities currently getting consistent work as a punt returner.
Ryan White served as Auburn's first-team holder for the last three seasons, but now the Tigers have to replace the quarterback-turned-secondary veteran. White's job as holder received the most attention last season, when he ran in a two-point conversion and threw for another in Malzahn's new "Batman" package.
Auburn would often take the field for conversions in a spread-out formation similar to the classic "Swinging Gate," look for any holes in the defense and then decide whether to go for two or shift into a traditional kick.
With Nick Marshall and Jeremy Johnson beating out Jonathan Wallace on the quarterback depth chart last season, the former starter could find a greater role in 2014 as Auburn's new "Batman." Wallace saw action in five games at quarterback last season in special packages, and he has the potential to show off his dual-threat ability on special teams this season. He served as White's unofficial backup at holder in 2013, learning the ins and outs of holding snaps for Cody Parkey and becoming a two-point conversion specialist.
Parkey spoke highly of Wallace during fall camp last season, telling AL.com's Brandon Marcello the Phenix City (Ala.) native was an important safety net for Auburn's special teams:
"He's got potential and that's the most important thing," Parkey said. "Ryan (White) has been doing it for three years for me. To have a solid guy behind him and watching him like Jonathan Wallace, who is willing to learn, is good. I would say he's doing well."