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Fall Camp Position Preview: What's the Deal with LSU's Special Teams?

You know, one of the nice things about this video is that there's still a lot here even if you take out the Tyrann Mathieu highlights...

Meanwhile, LSU's special teams roll forward this season with most of the larger gears still turning. The questions come from replacing one large one (the obvious) and a couple of small ones.

Specialists/Top Returning Special Teams Performers

Roster Information


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.

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.

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

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.

So what's the deal? As I noted in the spring, playmaking special teams have always been one of the central tenants of the LSU football program under Les Miles. And in 2011, they got turned up to...well...11. There were major special teams plays in just about every big game last season. Sometimes it was a boot to the door of an opposing lead, signaling the coming rush of points to take the game back. Others, it was another exclamation point to the Batman-style POW!- or ZAP!-type of blow that the Tigers had just landed. And while some of the parties to those plays are back, others aren't, and new rules have radically changed the kickoff portion of the game.

We'll start with the players. Brad Wing returns after the best season I've ever seen from a punter, in which he consistently flipped field position with punts that ranged from game-changing to "okay, now we're just piling on," while also becoming the first, and I'd wager quite possibly the last punter to have a 50-yard touchdown run called back on a celebration penalty. On fourteen separate occasions, Wing had a punt downed inside of the 10 yard line, and through 13 games his punts had been returned for a grand total of 10 yards (even with the 63 that Bama tacked on in the bowl game, that number is still pretty damn good). And that's despite facing three of the nation's top-10 in punt return average in Joe Adams, Tavon Austin and Marquis Maze. His lack of a Ray Guy trophy remains the most glaring omission from last year's postseason awards. Wing will be joined by fellow Aussie Jamie Keehn, a late addition to the 2012 recruiting class, who could very well get some work this year -- punters may never declare for the NFL early, but if there's one that could probably do it, it's Wing.

LSU also returns both of its kickers, Drew Alleman and James Hairston. Alleman was excellent on kicks, if maybe a little limited in his range. But if you have a guy that can consistently handle kicks from the 35 and in, you don't complain too much. Hairston emerged around week four as an excellent kickoff man, with the big leg you'd expect from a 6-1, 220-pounder. His role in 2012 could be much more interesting, strategically, but more on that later. Freshman Reid Ferguson, more than any 2012 recruit, is destined for a significant role on this team as the new starting deep snapper. If he handles his job well, you probably won't read his name again in this blog over the next few months.

LSU will have new kick and punt returners with Mo Claiborne's expected departure and Mathieu's unexpected one, but with athletes like Odell Beckham Jr., Russell Shepard, Paul Turner and Jarvis Landry I don't expect much drop off. They may not always have Mathieu's knack for timing, but the team return averages should still be fairly healthy (depending on how opponents approach the new kickoff rules). The area where Mathieu, and Ron Brooks' departures may be felt the most is on punt coverage. Both players did a fantastic job of tracking the ball in flight and downing it, if not catching it, short of the goal line. This part of the game will fall to n00bs like Micah Eugene, the Jalen's, Collins and Mills, and players like Landry and Ronald Martin. Touchbacks on punts will remain at the 20-yard line, but it's the moving of kick-offs in the endzone out to the 25 that will make for some interesting moves and counter-moves in the coming months.

To recap: teams will now kickoff from their 35-yard line (up five yards, same as the NFL), with the kickoff team allowed just five yards of running start behind the ball; touchbacks on a kickoff will now come out to the 25-yard line instead of the 20; and any kick can be fair-caught like a punt after one bounce -- this rule in particular will all-but eliminate the usual short pop-up onside kick, which has traditionally been caused by the kicker popping the ball directly into the ground to get that high bounce.

The goal for these rules changes is safety, and to help eliminate the more violent kickoff collisions -- just as in recent years the use of blocking wedges and "wave" onside kicks (where the kicking team throws a gang of blockers in advance of the kick to try and create room for a trailer or two to get the ball). Whether that is actually accomplished, remains to be seen. Typically, coaches have viewed the kickoff touchback as something of a royalty -- most would prefer to force offenses to start 80 yards from paydirt, but kickers that can get the ball that far regularly are few and far between. The thing about having a truly gifted kickoff guy, is that if he can get the ball that deep, he can probably put enough air under it to still force a return (or drop the ball into the endzone at a shallow enough depth that a returner won't be able to resist temptation to bring it out) while giving the coverage team a couple of extra steps to get in position and stop the ball short of the touchback mark. Hairston gave LSU this luxury, and they were never afraid to exercise it when Miles or special teams coach Thomas McGaughey liked the matchup of the coverage versus the kick returner.

With the extra five yards, more kickoffs will likely make the endzone, although not much deeper with regularity -- although a kicker like Hairston could probably put it pretty deep, if not past the end line much more often. But for the return team, a touchback gets you five extra yards now, so the temptation to bring the ball out will go down a little (I imagine the more dictatorial coaches will tell players "you take it out you better get past the 25" with some sort of punishment attached). But for a team like LSU, that has the talent at kicker and the athletes deployed in coverage, you could expect more sky/directional kicks, designed to still force a return but put the coverage in a position to make the tackle. And even if the returner gets to the 22 or so, that's still a three-yard net win. However, the five-yard start cushion may give McGaughey something to think about. Kickoff teams are generally composed of DBs, linebackers, tight ends and receivers -- a healthy mix of speed and players that can shed blocks and make open-field tackles (at LSU this can also include defensive ends, but that's a testament to matchup nightmare Barkevious Mingo). But look for the premium to be placed more and more on first-step speed. Guys that can move fast, faster, because they'll only have a few yards to start with before that ball is in the air. In the NFL, teams have dealt with the five-yard rule by bunching closer to the kicker and running laterally as they begin to advance down field, a cheap geometric way to gain a couple of steps. LSU will likely employ this strategy with a variant of the "space invaders" bunching they used at times last year. But don't be surprised if you continue to see starters heavily involved, both for LSU and other teams. As long as every yard remains a valuable commodity, smart coaches will continue to find ways to steal one whenever or wherever they can.

As for onside kicks, coaches will either become more inventive, such as the ol' two-kicker shuffle, or work with punters, whom, with the rise of more and more soccer or Aussie-rules footballers in the game, have become even more adept at manipulating the ball, to find other ways to create short kicks that are difficult to field.