One of the of most unheralded, yet wholesale successful, units of the past couple of years for LSU has been the Special Teams. In the all-too-forgettable 2008 season, special teams was one of many units that could be added to the list of things "I'd rather not think about." That unit was headed up by the same man who righted the ship, Joe Robinson, who is now a member of the UNC coaching staff. Robinson's coaching drew much criticism after 2008, but the results of 2009 and 2010 cannot be disputed.
However, with a regime change, what can be expected? From his tenure at LSU, we should all well know the emphasis Coach Miles puts on the Special Teams units. Though not much is known about new ST Coordinator Thomas McGaughey, he appears to be a rising star in the business. At just 37 years of age, McGaughey is a young, African-American assistant with ties to the Houston area, an area of significant recruiting dropoff since the departure of Larry Porter. His NFL experience should only bolster his reputation. The hire is a bit outside the typical Miles box (which I would define the x coordinate as "People I know/have worked with" and the y coordinate as "People who are known by people I know/have worked with." So that obviously speaks to his ability to give a good interview. Regardless, what can we expect from the 2011 Special Teams Units?Under Robinson, the special teams coverage units seemed to be built mainly from the youngsters looking to cut their teeth and gain experience. Through the second half of last season, many of the veterans demanded to have roles after a somewhat porous performance, and it's not unheard of to even see a starter out on KO or Punt Coverage (ahem, Jacob Hester). But, for the most part, the units are chocked full of young talent as a means of helping them adjust to the collegiate speed level. Some special teams standouts remain just that (Graff, Daniel) while others work themselves into the starting lineup (Baker, Ryan). Regardless, as we've seen time and again, the ST units at LSU are not the units for the leftovers, but positions to be earned, spots to be fought for and places to take pride in.
Before delving into too man 2011 specifics, we most first focus on the 2010 losses, namely, Zod. The loss of arguably the most explosive and dangerous returner in LSU history cannot be overstated. Simply put, Peterson gave LSU 20+ yards of filed position nearly every single time he touched the football (which is truly remarkable). His elite speed, vision and athleticism allowed him to break plays open that mere mortals couldn't dream about even if they created themselves with 99 speed on NCAA Football 2011. He was rare; he was special; he won't be replaced.
Regardless, the battle for the opening punt return and KO return spot should be interesting. Rueben Randle is one of the top candidates, and Miles has shown before a certain fearlessness in sticking a starting WR with those duties (both Skyler Green and Craig Davis handled it at times). Randle doesn't strike you as the type of sudden athlete that you typically see as a PR, but he's so sure handed, fluid and elusive, it's not impossible to see his success there. Another named being bandied around is Tyrann Mathieu. Mathieu proved to be undersized playmaker in the secondary this past fall, and his elite speed, fearlessness and instincts may make him an ideal fit for the position. One other name to keep an eye on is redshirt freshman Jakhari Gore. Gore is a bit of an undersized running back (though he does look like he could fill into that shorter/thicker RB mold of Ray Rice/MJD), who many believe was recruited as a ST ace. He'll certainly get his shot to prove his worth this spring, summer and fall.
Beyond the returner battle, the other most interesting positional battle this offseason will be for the vacancies left at both placekicker and punter. Drew Alleman seems the likely fill in at the "Jasper" position of both PK, KO man, and situational punter. Alleman is a plus athlete (for the spot) with a big leg. However, RS Freshman Brad Wing will push for the full-time punter's roll and true freshman James Hairston was also recruited to bring further competition to both spots. By fall, I expect Alleman to have a lock on the PK and KO duties and the Wild Aussie, Wing, to be our punter for the next four years. Rave reviews have already returned about his ridiculous leg strength.
As for the rest of the units, it's impossible to tell. Ask any coach at any level and they will tell you, if you really want to impress, show out on special teams. In 2011, LSU will be looking for some new standouts from the ST's units, and just who will rise to the occasion?