At last, we have reached the end of the positional unit rankings, with the nebulous special teams to go. Special teams is a term that encompasses quite a lot of football: punting, kicking field goals, kickoff and punt returns, and the coverage units. There’s a lot going on there, and most teams are deficient in at least one of the four phases of the special teams.
I’m a huge believer in the value of hidden yards, and there are tiny gains to be stolen, particularly in the punt game. A good special teams unit can pick up five yards on every exchange of punts, which can add up, and help slowly flip field position. Of course, it’s always great to have a guy who can just break a touchdown run.
Daniel Carlson is the best kicker in the nation, and he played his best in Auburn’s close games. Without him, Auburn maybe loses two more games last year. He’s also excellent on the kickoff, ranking first in touchback percentage and never once kicking it out of bounds. Auburn also gained 4.21 yards on the average punt exchange. This unit did it all.
The best combination of specialists: P Johnny Townsend and K Eddy Pineiro will both contend for all-SEC honors (Pineiro less so thanks to Carlson). They average just about the same as Auburn on overall punting thanks to a mediocre return unit. Pineiro also has a slight problem with knocking kickoffs out of bounds.
3. Texas A&M
A&M’s punt return units are insane. Yes, a lot of that is Christian Kirk, but Nick Harvey also took one to the house. They are above average in punt coverage as well. Okay, Daniel LaCamera could charitably be described as shaky on field goals (17/24), but Braden Mann was ace on kickoffs. If they shore up the field goal accuracy, they are up with the nation’s elite.
The other team with four punt returns for touchdowns. In addition, the Tide blocked three punts. They also have a terrific coverage unit keyed by JK Scott, an elite punter. Their kicking job is an open question, and they think they have the stud recruit to answer that question, but I’m always skeptical of freshman kickers.
Trevor Daniel is a near elite punter, and the Vols boast great coverage and return units. They were the SEC’s best at kickoff coverage as well. The question, again, is finding a guy to kick field goals. K Aaron Medley has a strong yet erratic leg.
The Hogs will break in a new kicker, though Cole Hedlund saw some action last season (5/7). One of the best coverage units in the SEC, they are pedestrian at nearly everything else. But they still beat you on the punt exchange, slowly but surely.
The best return team in the conference. Throw in some decent coverage, and they have the highest differential of net punting to net opponent punting at 6.08 yards. So, they are great at the yardage phase of the game. The problem is that they can’t kick. Tucker McCann was a dismal 6/12 on FG attempts as a freshman.
8. Ole Miss
Every team from here on out in the rankings loses yardage on the average punt exchange, but Ole Miss is near the midpoint. They also boast a kicker in Gary Wunderlich who his on 95.7% of his attempts last season, which goes a long way. Shore up the coverage, this could be a great unit.
Austin MacGinnis was among the league leaders in field accuracy at 84.2%. He doesn’t have the strongest leg, but he also never put the kickoff out of bounds. On the flip side, Grant McKinniss (no relation) only averaged 39.19 yards per punt. Which is awful and ranked last in the SEC.
How the mighty have fallen. LSU used to destroy teams on the hidden yards in the punt game, and now they are the negative. The return game was pedestrian, the kickoff units worse. Colby Delahoussay hit 11/15 field goals and Cameron Gamble ranked dead last in touchbacks on the kickoff, while also booting 3 out of bounds. Josh Growden was one of the worst punters in the conference. Right now, LSU doesn’t do anything in special teams all that well.
11. Mississippi St.
They don’t do a whole lot, but they did block four punts, more than anyone else in the conference. So that’s something.
Tommy Oppenshaw did hit 15 of 19 field goals. He also ranks 11th in touchbacks and kicked a remarkable 8 balls out of bounds, more than twice as many as any other returning kicker. The return unit is decent, the coverage units are not.
Simply awful in coverage and no explosiveness in the return game. Rodrigo Blankenship was fairly accurate, but that’s the only thing in special teams the Dawgs do well.
14. South Carolina
The Gamecocks need to find both a new kicker and new punter. The good news is, neither were that effective in the first place. They allowed three kickoff returns for touchdowns. The rest of the SEC combined for three, too.
I give the Gators a slight edge here because Townsend is a really good punter, and they have one of the best return men in the league in Antonio Callaway.
Daniel Carlson is the best kicker in the country. In the class that actually turns some games for an offense that has been spotty.
3. Texas A&M
The return guys both really sell things here for Aggie. Punter is great, kicker is eh.
JK Scott has kind of tailed off since his amazing freshman year, but he's still really good. The return and coverage teams are solid, because duh, they have the best athletes. Kicker? Well why you gotta bring that up?
A great return game can overcome a lot, even a shoddy kicker. And the idea of a freshman kicker improving isn't exactly crazy.
Here's a unit where a little improvement could yield some big dividends. The return/coverage units are solid, and so is the punter. The kicker is the missing piece and Aaron Medley has at least shown some range.
Yes, LSU has taken a big step back here in recent years, but I think there's a rebound coming. Josh Growden led a solid punting unit last year, one that you'd expect to improve with another year under his belt and some very experienced DBs outside running things down. Kickoffs have been a disaster, but there's nowhere to go but up. And returns may be where we first see some of the young receivers here show some skill.
Kicker should be fine, and the coverage units are very good. So at the very least, they have what they need to gather up some hidden yardage. Sure would be nice to find a better returner though.
9. Ole Miss
Gary Wunderlich is very good. The rest of this unit is not so much.
Same deal. Good kicker, but not much else to brag about.
11. Mississippi St.
Admittedly, you can pull these final four out of a hat really.
14. South Carolina
What in the hell has happened to return men in the SEC?
The only success they found last year was using the old recent Les Miles at LSU model: play great defense and Special Teams, try and get one score on offense. Pineiro has a boot and he's on par with Carlson. It's not his fault his offense was so bad he got 7 fewer FG attempts and even fewer KO attempts. Add Townsend to that and you've got the best pair of specialists in the league. The fact that their return game stinks even with Callaway is... something.
Carlson elevates the overall unit, as he's deadly accurate with range. He cashed a lot checks for an offense that didn't always in 2016. Auburn replaces their punter, which could be a fun adventure. Auburn also stinks at returning kicks.
Their punting is stellar with Trevor Daniel. Aaron Medley is erratic as a FG kicker, but he's dynamite off the tee. He's also a SR and sometimes things can just settle in for kickers. Tennessee's return game is pretty good. It pays to have a Berry brother!
4. Texas A&M
Finally a team with dynamic returns. Kirk is the best in the conference and a threat to bank any ball kicked to him. Their punting is fine. Maybe their kicker will mature?
Bama fans would give JK Scott the Heisman if they could. The Tide have always been pretty enigmatic on STs. Obviously they have all the athletes needed for a great unit, but Saban doesn't dedicate much effort to mastering that area. Still, they remain more than competent.
Pretty much everyone else is dramatically bad at something, if not most things.
Stellar return game and shit FG kicking.
Perfectly average at everything until it comes to kicking off or returning kicks, in which they are abject disaster.
8. Ole Miss
FG kicking rivals the top 2 units in the conference. They couldn't return a kick on open air.
Just fine and dandy at everything... except kicking it to the other team, which they have perfected being terrible at.
10. South Carolina
Higher on this group because of Deebo. I can't ding them for having to replace bad kickers
Did most things the same as LSU, except FG kicking, at which they were better...
Their punting and FG kicking are objectively awful. They at least rank in the top half of the league in punt returns.
O's response to LSU's rapidly declining STs? Let's not even bother to hire a coordinator. Swell. Didn't rank in the top half of the league in a single area. Not one.
14. Mississippi St.
Dear god, Mullen, there are 3 phases to the game.
Townsend is an exceptional punter, probably the best in the country. They've got a solid return man in Antonio Callaway, who's a standout player in his own right.
Another all-around great unit. The gap between this group and Florida's is extraordinarily small, almost nonexistent. They've got the best kicker in the nation in Carlson.
3. Texas A&M
The Aggies feature some great returners, and one of the best punters in the conference. Their kicker needs to mature some, but this is still a very good squad.
The Vols have some talented returners, and an even better punter. Some more consistency from Medley could land them an even higher spot on the list.
This is an area the Crimson Tide actually fall closer to the middle of the pack on. They have all the talent necessary, but it almost seems like the coaching staff has skipped over them sometimes. Nonetheless, still a very good group.
Their kicker isn't the best, we get that. But their return game is impeccable, to the point it almost totally makes up for that.
7. Ole Miss
They've got a solid kicker in Wunderlich, no question about that. With a few tweaks, this could quickly transform into an elite unit.
The Razorbacks have an overall average unit here. Nothing particularly awful, but also nothing particularly fantastic.
MacGinnis is an exceptionally accurate kicker. Unfortunately for Kentucky, the rest of the unit is exceptionally... bad.
This unit has declined rapidly over the past few seasons. But they're showing great potential to bounce back this year. The question is whether or not they fulfill that expectation.
11. South Carolina
The Gamecocks are out both a kicker and a punter. They've got a good bit to work on.
Oppenshaw is about all they have here, and even he isn't all that impressive.
The Bulldogs aren't half bad returners. They're not so good with any other aspect of special teams, though.
14. Mississippi St.
What exactly is going on here?
There’s a clear class of the league here: Auburn and Florida. I’m pretty proud to have broken up the Florida clean sweep, though I can’t argue much with them being the top school. The next group is also pretty clear: A&M, Tennessee, Bama, and maybe Mizzou. After that, it gets real ugly real fast.
LSU sparked the most disagreement, and had the widest array of voting, though let’s be honest, none of us think the special teams unit is all that good, which is a dramatic step back from the glory days of this program. If LSU wants to get back to competing for titles, this is a great place to start. Those hidden yards add up.
3. Texas A&M
8. Ole Miss
12. South Carolina
13. Mississippi State