Five Questions on LSU Spring Football Practice: Special Teams


Specialists/Top Returning Special Teams Performers

Roster Information

Height/Weight

2011 Season

No. 30 Senior Kicker Drew Alleman

5'11, 183

Made 16 of 18 field goals (3 of 4 beyond 40 yards) and 62 of 63 extra points. Second-team All-SEC, Lou Groza Award Finalist.

38 Sophomore Punter Brad Wing

6'3, 184

Averaged 44.1 yards on 50 punts with a long of 73 yards, dropped 23 inside the 20-yard line with 5 touchbacks. First-team All-American and All-SEC (AP), Ray Guy Award Finalist.

30 Sophomore Kicker James Hairston

6'0, 200

Kickoff specialist averaged 65.7 yards on 69 kickoffs, with 16 touchbacks.

50 Freshman Snapper Reid Ferguson

6'2, 235

Rated as No. 2 deep-snapping prospect by Scout.com

7 Junior Tyrann Mathieu - Averaged 16.2 yards on 26 punt returns with two touchdowns. Also ace punt-return gunner.

3 Sophomore Odell Beckham, Jr. - Averaged 24 yards on 5 kickoff returns, 8.6 yards on 9 punt returns.

10 Senior Russell Shepard - Averaged 24 yards on 2 kickoff returns.

4 Junior Alfred Blue - 14 special teams tackles.

80 Sophomore Jarvis Landry - 11 special teams tackles.

Should we be excited?

Aren't you? I mean for the last three seasons LSU has had some of, if not the, most exciting special teams in the country. Game-winning kicks. Game-changing punt returns. A punter that can flip field position on a single kick. Oh and can also do things like this.

Across the interwebz, the world of advanced statistics is still trying to quantify the full value of special teams in relation to offense in defense. Coaches will tell you it's a third of the game, but the Brian Fremau's and Bill Connelly's of the world are still trying to put an exact number on it. I'm certainly not about to try it myself, but I can tell you this: in 2009 and 2010, LSU's special teams helped cover for a shoddy offense and in 2011, it was a boot to the door of the opposition. It turned games on their heads, it gave a limited offense the advantage it needed to drop the hammer on opposing defenses and at times it was a means for LSU to extend ongoing domination. It keyed comebacks against Arkansas and Georgia and set the stage for some of the Tigers' biggest victories with big plays against Oregon and West Virginia.

Who is back?

The headliner is All-American Punter Brad Wing. A year ago, there were rumblings that the coaching staff felt that they had a real weapon on their hands in the Australian import, but it was largely brushed off, including by yours truly. After all, how much impact could a punter have? Seems funny in hindsight. Wing consistently altered momentum with his precision punting, be it with length, hangtime or accuracy. Of his 50 kicks, 20 were returned for a grand total of 73 yards. Twenty-three were downed inside the 20 and 14 of those, inside the 10. Read that last bit again. Fourteen times, Wing and the Tiger punt team pinned the opposition 90 yards from the endzone. Most coaches will tell you that if an offense can't score, they at least hope that it'll gain enough yardage to change field position. Wing allowed the Tigers to do that even when the offense couldn't.

He was of course, aided by some fantastic teammates. Tyrann Mathieu was more than just a dynamic punt returner -- he was a pretty damn good punt defender and (along with Ron Brooks) played a big role in a number of those downed punts. And of course, his strip-and-score of Kenjon Barner helped spark LSU in the opener against Oregon. He's joined by other special team defensive standouts like Jarvis Landry and Alfred Blue, whom also served as a strong blocker on the kickoff team as well.

Also back is kicker Drew Alleman, who was about as reliable as one could've expected out of a first-year guy last year. Sophomore James Hairston will continue to work on kickoffs, and probably step in for a field goal every now and then to prep him for taking over the job full time in 2013. Hairston's 16 touchbacks last season were the most any Tiger's had since Chris Jackson in 2006, when the kickoffs came from the 35-yard line, which brings us to...

Who/what is new?

Special team changes are two-fold this season, with some new personnel on hand and some new rules governing kickoffs and punts.

The headliner is that kickoffs move up to the 35-yard line, mirroring the NFL's move from last season. Also like the pros, kickoff gunners will only be allowed a five-yard running start on the kick. Where the college game will differ is that touchbacks will now come out to the 25-yard line on kickoffs (touchbacks on punts or other turnovers will stay at the 20). That change in particular will make for some interesting tactics. Most coaches would tell you that, all things equal, they'd prefer their kickoff man just boom the ball out of the endzone. Of course, when the kickoff was at the 30 that was a lot easier said than done. But now, with the ball coming out to the 25, you'll see a lot coaches playing the matchups: if they like their kickoff teams against a particular returner, you'll see more sky and directional kicks, gambling that they can gain those five yards back with good coverage. Knowing Les Miles, LSU will certainly be one of those teams if Hairston shows some good touch with the ball. Remember, it's a game of inches, and coaches will scheme for any advantage they think they can get (see multiple kickers with the No. 30). As for the new head-start limit, one way NFL teams dealt with it was by having their coverage teams take a couple of lateral steps at the five-yard mark before moving forward. It may only give you a handful of extra yards, but some coaches will take that. From an LSU standpoint, one wonders if special teams coach Thomas McGaughey will play around with some formations similar to the "space invaders" cloud-burst he tried a couple of times last year. It created some misdirection that can hide a directional kick or even an onside one, but with limited room the play with there's only so much a coach can do. The spring game might add a clue or two here.

The return side of this equation will be intriguing as well, as there will be no mo' Mo Claiborne and Ron Brooks on the return team either. Early reports have Russell Shepard taking over as the lead role, with Blue joining him. Shepard saw two kickoffs last year, and while I can't say I remember any of them being noteworthy, his average was decent enough. We all know he has the speed, and another way to get the ball in his hands should help. Blue will likely serve in a similar capacity to Brooks last season, as the lead blocker for the primary returner. He doesn't have the speed you typically see out of a deep guy on kickoffs, but with the new rules, there won't be very many good return opportunities anyway and I think the coaching staff would rather have one runner with 10 blockers out there for when there's a good shot at a return. Chances are there will still be a lot of touchbacks anyway.

Brooks' loss in general is a tough one for the kicking game. He didn't handle the ball that much, but he was an outstanding cover guy that really seemed to take pride in his role on special teams. Brooks downed a number of Wing's pooch punts, and if I had to guess, half of his 30 or so tackles from last season came on special teams. Look for Ron Vinson and some of the younger cornerbacks like David Jenkins and Jalen Collins to see some time there, as well as Jarvis Landry (though his emergence on offense may factor in how many special teams snaps he sees). Blue will once again play a major role on the kickoff team as well.

Additionally, true frosh Reid Ferguson is on campus now to take over the deep-snapping duties. He was rated as one of the top snapping prospects by most services last season and was teammates with fellow early enrollee Vadal Alexander.

Any concerns?

The new rules create an unknown, but otherwise not really. It puts another potential chess piece on the board, particularly for teams with proven gamebreakers in the return game. Will a team willingly hand a team the ball at the 25 or gamble on their coverage? Likewise, the newbies on LSU's coverage squads will have to attack with the same enthusiasm we saw from Brooks & Co. last year.

A reliable deep snapper is kind of like a condom for a single guy -- you don't think about it much until you suddenly need one. Most fans probably can't even say much about the position until something goes wrong. So here's hoping an early arrival will help Ferguson get acclimated to the college game smoothly.

I'm not totally confident in Shepard as a return man as of today, but some of the freshmen will have a say at that position in fall camp as well.

Who/what is the X-Factor?

For the time being, we're back to the new rules here, but, beyond this spring I think you'll see some of the freshmen get into the act on special teams.

Ronnie Feist and Lamar Louis will almost certainly get into the act on coverage, if for no other reason than to get their feet wet in case injuries force them into the linebacker two-deep. But the guys to watch for on returns will be Kavahra Holmes and Derrick Raymond, both of whom have sprinter speed. Raymond is a really raw prospect that hasn't seen the field much in high school, but has the kind of talent that could get him out there when he arrives in the summer. He's one to watch.

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