After one of the best offseasons LSU football has had in some time, the 2016 team could be poised for some great things. Les Miles has the best running back in college football, more returning starters than any other team he’s had here, and hired one of the best defensive coordinators in the country to coach a unit that returns eight starters. The pieces could easily be in place for a run at the college football playoff -- the advanced statistics back that up as well.
But as with any team, there are question marks that have to be answered. Things that have to be improved upon, or steps that need to be taken. Over the coming weeks before we get into the meat of really previewing this team, we’ll talk about some of those issues.
In this week’s installment, we take a look at a phase of the game that was an even bigger source of frustration for the Tigers in 2015. Special teams -- LSU has to do better in 2016.
Allow myself to quote…myself…from spring practices a few months back:
LSU's 2015 special teams unit finished 88th in the Fremau Efficiency Index unit rankings.
Dead last in the SEC in punt coverage. Ninth in kickoff return coverage, and ninth in both average punt and kickoff returns. Overall, LSU's average starting field position was at the 28.7 yard line, 98th in the country, while opponents started at their own 30 (69th nationally).
For a point of reference, if you aggregate LSU’s special teams FEI ranking from 2014-2007 (when Fremau began calculating special teams efficiency), the SUM TOTAL of those seven seasons of rankings is 87. This is one time where it is not remotely hyperbolic to suggest that LSU’s special teams fell off a cliff.
That said, do you NEED great special teams to compete for a championship? Not at all. None of the 2015 playoff teams ranked in the top 70 in FEI, and among the 2014 playoff teams, only Oregon and Florida State were even in the top 30.
It’s always been common parlance to talk about “offense, defense and special teams” like they’re on equal footing, but most analytics calculations place the value somewhere below that nominal 33 percent. But in a conference where close games are always going to be a reality, the hidden yards gained through the field position and return games can have incredible value. And in some cases, they can completely break or break open the nature of a game. Even beyond the obvious big play of a punt or kick-off returns -- see the 2011 season, when the Tigers often put teams on the ropes with a punt inside the 15-yard line that led to a big defensive series and a short field for the offense.
And as we saw last season, bad special teams units tend to screw up at really inopportune times, such as the muffed punt that led to the first touchdown of the Florida game, or the return TD that put the Gators back in it in the fourth quarter. Or a kickoff out of bounds that helped Alabama grab three extra points right before halftime. It was brutal, especially for an area of the game that has maybe been one of the most consistent things about LSU under Les Miles.
When it comes to improvement here, the discussion is fairly simple though — just do better. There’s no coaching change, nor is there really any magic scheme wand to waive. There is, however, some new blood: a new punter in Josh Growden, new legs in the mix at kicker in true freshman Connor Culp and redshirt frosh Jack Gonsoulin, plus freshmen like Xavier Lewis, Derrick Dillon, Lanard Fournette, Devin White, Michael Divinity, Savion Smith, Eric Monroe, Kristian Fulton, Greedy Williams, Drake Davis, Dee Anderson and Stephen Sullivan, all of whom will have chances to make their mark on special teams.
The kick and punt returners are all back, and I would imagine some adjustment to the speed of the college game will only help Donte Jackson and Derrius Guice on kickoffs in terms of setting up blocks and finding a rhythm to their games. As for Tre’davious White on punts, he certainly can be a dangerous runner with the ball, it’s just decision-making and security that continue to be issues. But it remains to be seen if anybody else will get a shot at that position.
As for coverage units, there’s not a lot to offer besides hope in the new players and improvement from the returnees, particularly at kicker. Having some more young linebackers around like White, Divinity, Rahssan Thornton, Andre Anthony and Sci Martin could help, as could the defensive back class.
New blood should help, and the reality is that it wouldn’t take all that much in terms of results for a turnaround. Flip those average starting field position statistics and chances are this special teams unit will be back in the top 40 at a minimum. Growden is a total unknown at punter, but he won’t be dealing with Jamie Keehn’s injury problems, so that should help with consistency, at a minimum. Kicker will be the big variable, especially on kickoffs, where nobody ever seemed to find any consistency, be it Cameron Gamble or Trent Domingue. If one of those two, or one of the newbies, can get back to putting the ball in the endzone, that alone would make a noticeable difference.