We are past SEC Media Days where flies on the wall were going to sleep. It is now time to get back to football. Let’s take a look at the changing face of the Auburn Tigers. Exactly what will be different in 2010?
The loss of Antonio Coleman, Walter McFadden, Jake Ricks, Clinton Durst, Ben Tate, Tommy Trott and Chris Todd will change the face and dynamics of every aspect of the team. The addition of thirty new players that are talented and ready to contribute in their own right will also change the face of every aspect of the team.
One of the least productive areas for Auburn in 2009 was special teams. It is arguable that special teams caused three losses for the Tigers in 2009 and assisted in making routine games into heart attacks waiting to happen. Poor field position for the offense and defense can be laid at the feet of this unit more often than not.
Kicking and Punting
Clinton Durst was a solid performer for Auburn over the last two seasons. He punted 134 times and averaged over 41 yards per punt. The best punter in the conference only averaged a little better than 47 yards per punt.
Auburn returns Ryan Shoemaker for 2010; he has averaged more than 42 yards per punt. This fact is a little misleading though; he has proved to be inconsistent at times. If he manages to work out his inconsistencies, he will be a very solid starter for Auburn.
Steven Clark is an incoming freshman that will push shoemaker for the starting position this fall. With an impressive hang time that is consistently in the 4.6 second range along with a 42 yard average, he will provide formidable competition.
Wes Byrum has been a pillar of consistency in field goal kicking for Auburn. He made 15 of 16 attempts in 2009. While the Auburn offense tended to make his services for field goals a rarely needed commodity, he was also solid on extra points.
The shortfall in kicking performance has been in kickoffs. Often this weak area resulted in the opponent starting at or outside the 40 yard line. No team can simply spot the competition 20 extra yards and expect to consistently win.
Cody Parkey is a pretty good incoming freshman kicker. He averages about 77 yards per kick off. He also hits on over 90 percent of his kicks. I expect him to find a starting role at this position in the fall.
Expect punting to be consistent in 2010. The field goal unit will be excellent and we could see Cody Parkey at any time the ball crosses the 50 yard line. He has attempted and made several field goals over 50 yards including a 57 yarder in his junior year. With the solid snapping and holding available on the Auburn team this could be an asset with Wes Byrum doing the honors for all attempts under 50.
With Parkey pulling kickoff duty, the average field position for opposition teams should return to the 20 yard line. This is an obvious improvement from 2009 and could be a difference maker on the season as a whole.
Wedge Blocking had changed the dynamic of college football kickoff coverage. It had largely taken away the speed advantage on coverage for some teams. This practice of placing three or more blockers shoulder to shoulder in front of the return man was banned by the NCAA during the off season. There was not a lot of attention paid to this ruling at the time, but it could be one of the biggest game changers in college football this year.
With a 15 yard penalty being handed out any time more than two blockers are within two yards of each other, fans are about to see the return of speed coverage. For those teams that can field elite speed on the coverage team, this will be a huge advantage.
Wile Auburn will have several players with elite speed available for coverage on special teams, I don’t expect this ruling to have a large effect. Assuming that Cody Parkey can continue his strong kickoff performances, most Auburn kickoffs should result in a touchback.
Auburn netted a 40.5 yard average on kickoffs in 2009. That puts the opponent on the 30.5 yard line on average through the entire season. There should be a 400 yard advantage in field position in 2010 for the Auburn defense due to improvements in this area alone.
In 2009 Auburn averaged 39.9 yards per punt and allowed the opponent to return them 12.9 yards on average. Their opponents averaged 42.3 yards per punt and Auburn returned them an average of 4.5 yards.
Auburn only gained 27 yards of field position for the defense on average per punt in 2009. Opponents averaged 37.8 yards of field position gained for their defense. This is like giving your opponent an extra first down on every change of possession.
The difference in net gain from the punting units gave opponents over 680 yards of added field position against the Auburn defense in 2009.
There are two ways to improve this deficit in production. The first is simply better punt return coverage. With the added depth of another class of freshmen it is hoped that punt coverage will improve in 2010. The other way to improve is to simply find a reliable punt returner. Auburn never found a dependable punt returner in 2009.