Spring Preview: Special Teams

It's almost not right to do this entirely in one post, as there are so many things to talk about in special teams. On the other hand, so many of the important parts of special teams are utterly undetermined and underminable at this point. While we know who the outstanding kick- and punt-coverage players were last year (Ryan Baker, Stevan Ridley, Ron Brooks, etc.), there's no guarantee that any of those players will be back on those units, as their roles in the regular lineup could greatly increase.

So we're really stuck with profiling the guys whose jobs are to put the "foot" in "football".

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Going into Spring, the only such player on the roster who did much of anything for LSU last year is placekicker/punter Josh Jasper. Jasper punted a little last year, and was the fulltime kickoff man. He kicked some field goals as well. Jasper's role will increase this year, as he figures to be the heir apparent to Colt Davis as the designated field goal man. One presumes he will also continue to handle kickoff duties, but Les Miles has been reluctant to give kickoff and field goal duties to the same person. I don't know why.

Jasper did not put a lot of kicks in the end zone on kickoffs, but that was not his plan. Joe Robinson always had his special teams unit try to get good hang time while pinning the return team near the sideline, to prevent big returns. The strategy paid off, as LSU had a pretty solid kickoff coverage unit, ranking 5th in the conference in both kickoff net and punting net the year after LSU had abysmal coverage units. Part of that was because we had very solid cover men as well.

Jasper could also be our punter, but it looks like right now that job will probably be taken by JUCO transfer punter Derek Helton. He was offered a scholarship for the 2009 class despite having very modest punting numbers from Fort Scott Community College (36.1 ypp). Miles and special teams coach Joe Robinson must have seen something they liked, because they offered him and made him the instant starter, despite Jasper's reasonably good punting numbers last season (43 yards per punt). (Maybe Helton was using a lot of specialty punts such as directional punts?)

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Should either Jasper or Helton struggle, the next guys in line are sophomore Andrew Crutchfield (who saw action as a true freshman in 2007, but who redshirted in 2008) and redshirt freshman walk-on Drew Alleman. Right now, they look like they're on the outside looking in, however.

This brings us to the return men, and here we have all of our returners from last year returning, but there's an X-factor that could throw off the predictions.

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The headline-grabber of the Spring so far has been sophomore Ron Brooks, who has been talked about regularly in multiple capacities. Brooks came on late in the year as a special teams cover man last year, and had one kickoff return for 23 yards. He is vying for more time as a corner/safety, but he is also pushing to be used as a return specialist, particularly on kickoffs.

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The three primary return men last year all return for the 2009 campaign. Chad Jones returned 8 punts, and made a lot of fair catches. Trindon Holliday was the primary returner both in kickoffs and punts, averaging 13.1 yards per punt return and 22.6 yards per kickoff return. Keiland Williams also returned kicks and had an average similar to Trindon's

Trindon Holliday has never been as productive a returner as some have hoped or expected. As a punt returner, Trindon was 5th in the conference in yards per return, but he also had a couple of fumbles. For all of Trindon's speed, he was really only a slightly better than average punt returner statistically, but gets downgraded because of his problems catching the ball. As a kickoff returner, he ranked 9th in the conference and had a pretty modest season-long of 49 yards.

Chad Jones proved to be sure-handed as a punt returner, but he can more accurately be described as a "punt receiver" than a "punt returner", because he returned very few. When he saw an opening to return a punt, he was fairly efficient at it, averaging 11.9 yards per punt return on only 8 attempts. This year he reports that his weight is up to over 230 pounds, which would make him probably the biggest punt returner since Brian Urlacher.

Keiland Williams has never looked natural as a return man to me. He's always looked tentative and uncomfortable. Strangely, despite this, his numbers as a returner were pretty similar to Trindon's. Keiland averaged 22.3 yards per return, while Trindon averaged 22.6 yards per return. I think Keiland has gotten a little too big, and it's taken a step off of his speed. If he trims down this year, I think it will help him both as a running back and as a return man, if he will continue to get used there.

This is all to say that there is room to improve the return game. Trindon has made a couple of electrifying returns in his career, but has not been consistently dangerous either as a punt returner or as a kickoff returner. In particular, it is worth noting that LSU's kickoff return game was the worst in the conference, averaging only 19.5 yards per return. Our punt returning was only average within the conference, and that's with us making what I assert without proof was probably an inordinate number of fair catches.

Average is not bad, but if you're trying to win the conference you can't give up ground to a lot of teams in a lot of places. Last year, we gave up ground in a number of areas, but we were last in the conference in two categories: interceptions (8 on the season) and kickoff return average. Throw in our 10th place finishes in throwing interceptions and our 8th place finish in pass efficiency defense and it's easy to see where we can make the biggest improvements. If it means getting another returner out there to close the gap in kickoff returns, so be it.

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