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LSU Post-Regular Season: Friday Post (or "Benevolent Dictator: Special Teams Edition")

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Continuing our theme of, "What if Richard Pittman was named Benevolent Dictator of LSU football?" today we look at the special teams.  This is really pretty simple.  I do two things differently on special team:

  1. Starting with the 10 session bowl practice season, I work out every running back and every defensive back and every wide receiver and everyone under 210 pounds on the entire roster, and I find a return man who can make some plays.
  2. I take a page from the Frank Beamer handbook and I play my best players on coverage teams.

Our inability to get a dynamic return game going is inexcusable.  Louisiana has some of the best skill position talent in the country, and we were 11th in the league in kickoff return average.  11th!  We were one behind Mississippi State, who barely even has any skill position players.  On punt returns, we were a little better.  Fifth, but keep in mind also we fumbled a number of them.  Still, with all the good receivers, good defensive backs, and just plain good athletes that are smack in the middle of our recruiting zone, we can't find someone who can both safely field a punt, and then return it for any kind of yardage.  And don't even get me started on why we can't seem to return a kickoff.  

Try out everyone.  Everyone with any kind of speed.  Everyone gets a chance to field punts in practice, and a chance to show they have the moves to return them.  A good punt returner is such a dangerous, game-changing weapon, and we haven't had one since Craig Davis left.

And speaking of Craig Davis, the man had never been a punt returner, even in high school, until our desperation to find one led us to ask him to try it.  It turned out that he was a natural.  He was our best punt returner since the small version of Skyler Green, and we only used him there for about half a season, and we haven't had one nearly as good since.  Surely, with all the Phelon Jones's, Ron Brooks's, John Williams's, and others on the roster, there must be SOMEONE who is a dangerous punt returner.  

And if there isn't, it needs to be made a priority in recruiting.  There is nothing in the world wrong with recruiting someone in the hopes that he will be a dangerous return man, even if you don't think he can necessarily do much of much else.  Look at Javier Arenas at Bama (until this year) and Brandon James at Florida.  Think those guys weren't worth a scholarship?

Of course, Trindon Holliday was supposed to be that guy, and while he has had a few explosive kickoff returns, he was bottled up for the most part this year, and the staff has never seemed comfortable asking him to field punts.  And yes, he has muffed more than a few of them.  I don't know why Trindon hasn't had more oomph as a return man, but maybe whoever the new special teams coordinator is would fix that.

Now to the second point.  Les Miles or whoever it is that makes this decision has decided to go the conventional route and ask young players to cut their teeth on special teams.  That's the typical way to play it, and I can't say it's terrible.  I just prefer another method.

Here, I will do something I almost never do, and talk about Nick Saban's philosophy and how we should go back to it.  Saban believed that a player's route to the NFL went through special teams.  If you aren't a future star in the NFL (and few are), you can hang around a roster for a long time by being competent in special teams.  Your best players should therefore be open to playing on special teams.  The more experience you have at it, the better off you are when you get to the league.  That's how guys like Bradie James and Eric Alexander (both undrafted) got started in the NFL.  They won a job on special teams, and then worked their way up.  It's probably not a coincidence that both were also covering kicks and punts their senior years at LSU.

Couple that with the Frank Beamer philosophy that each play on special teams is more important than each play on a regular down (which is at best arguable I suppose), then you have an unavoidable conclusion that your best players should be playing on special teams.  It's best for them, and arguably best for the team.  Your most experienced players are also often your best tacklers, and your best tacklers need to be covering kicks if they're also fast enough to get downfield.  Beamer goes so far as to say that if your best players need a rest, rest them by taking them out for a series, but don't take them off the coverage teams.

This year, LSU has had some young players absolutely excel at covering on special teams.  Ryan Baker springs immediately to mind, but Ron Brooks, Stevan Ridley, and Karnell Hatcher have also had some nice moments.  Keep them out there, and let them get even better at it.  How good will those guys be at covering punts and kicks when they're seniors?

So that's how I play it.  The two most important things I think I think about special teams are to do everything in the world you can to find some people who can return the ball, and get your best players out there to cover kicks and punts.  I'm not sure it's quite so important on returns, but maybe that's just because I have only a faint understanding of everything that goes on with the 10 guys on the field who don't have the ball.

I do believe, however, that our last several special teams coordinators have been right not to try real hard to block punts.  It's a dangerous game trying to block a punt, and it seems to result in a personal foul penalty more often than a true block, plus it leaves your punt returner vulnerable and essentially unable to return the punt because the blocking will not be there for him.  No, I think you're better off letting the guy punt and then trying to return it.

Ta-ta for now.  More if a DC gets hired.  Or fired.