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Previewing the 2017 Tigers: Special Teams

Now this is a unit that is badly in need of a rebound.

LSU/Chris Parent

The word “decline” has been thrown around a bunch in relation to LSU in the last few years, but if there’s one area where it is a 100-percent accurate description, it’s in the area of special teams.

What was once a full-on weaponized aspect of LSU’s gameplan on a week-in, week-out basis, became a liability in recent seasons. And so one of Ed Orgeron’s first moves after taking over as the full-time head was to axe the coach responsible — Bradley Dale Peveto.

In his place, Orgeron has moved the Tigers to a multi-pronged approach to the kicking game with different aspects coached by Jeff Grimes, Mickey Joseph, Corey Raymond, Tommie Robinson and Dennis Johnson, overseen by analyst and long-time NFL special teams coach Greg McMahon. The division of labor will feature Robinson running the punt team, Raymond on punt returns, Grimes on field goals, Johnson on kick-blocking and Joseph on kick returns.

The analyst aspect means that McMahon will be responsible for the game-planning, scouting and evaluation, while the coaches implement his work.

The idea of not having a full-time, dedicated special teams coach is a foreign concept to LSU over the last decade or so, but it’s a setup that Pete Carroll employed on his USC staff (with Orgeron) and one used by programs like Florida State, Oklahoma and Ohio State.

And it’s a setup with some work cut out for it, given that LSU is replacing both a long-time kicker and punt returner.

LSU 2017 Specilaists

Place-Kicker Ht/Wt PAT FG Pct
Place-Kicker Ht/Wt PAT FG Pct
35 Jack Gonsoulin (So.) 5-9, 165 1-1 0-0 0%
34 Connor Culp (Fr.-RS) 5-11, 186 Redshirted
Punter Ht/Wt Punts Avg TB
38 Josh Growden (Jr.) 6-2, 198 57 41.4 3
Kick-Offs Ht/Wt Kickoffs Avg TB
36 Cameron Gamble (Sr.) 5-11, 189 63 61.2 14
35 Jack Gonsoulin (So.) 5-9, 165 4 62.5 0
Kick Returner Ht/Wt Returns Avg TD
5 Derrius Guice (Jr.) 5-11, 212 11 20.3 0
1 Donte Jackson (Jr.) 5-11, 173 7 23.4 0
4 Nick Brossette (So.) 6-0, 209 3 19 0
Long Snapper Ht/Wt
50 Blake Ferguson (So.) 6-4, 234
Stats via Football Study Hall

SWOT Analysis

Strengths: Punting is better than you remember.

The upside to the Australian punting pipeline is that it can produce some exciting talents with a different skill and approach to the kicking game.

The downside is you’ll wind up with athletes who have played little, if any, actual American football. That was the case with Josh Growden last season, and it showed early on with a terrible performance in the season opener versus Wisconsin.

But he improved over the course of the season — it doesn’t show in his raw stats, but he finished a respectable 29th nationally in net punting, with the Tigers allowing all of 38 punt return yards on the season. Overall, the Tigers ranked 45th in punting success rate. That’s nothing great, but it’s not terrible either. And some improvement isn’t out of the question.

Weaknesses: Kicking is a complete unknown.

Jack Gonsoulin and Connor Culp will battle it out for both the place-kicking and kickoff duties this season. Cameron Gamble appears to be on the outside looking in, after a year of struggling to reach the endzone consistently. If there’s one thing Orgeron has made clear on this front, it’s that the era of sky and directional kickoffs are over. Put it out of the endzone.

Opportunities: There are a ton of options at returner.

Tre White’s dangerous approach to punt returns is no more. And Derrius Guice will no longer be on kickoff returns due to his value on offense.

Who replaces them is anybody’s guess right now. Drake Davis and Derrick Dillon were the favorites coming out of spring, but Donte Jackson and Clyde Edwards-Hellaire, among others, have all worked at returns in fall camp. And all of those options present different levels of speed, size and quickness to the position. So long as they all present a consistent option in terms of catching the ball, there may not be a bad choice here.

Threats: We don’t know what we don’t know.

The new coaching setup has put some people on edge, and while the idea is perfectly fine on its own, we don’t know how it will work in this particular iteration with this group of coaches.

Greg McMahon’s New Orleans Saints units have been abysmal as of late, but personally, I think that’s more attributable to a serious lack of talent on the black and gold roster. That, however, is a side issue. McMahon’s had successful units before, and he’ll certainly have athletes to help with coverage and blocking units here. Special teams success, often times, is more about generating enthusiasm and having players excited to make plays out there. On its face, that should be something coaches like Raymond and Johnson should have no problem with.

But we don’t know how Gonsoulin or Culp will perform. We don’t know how some of LSU’s tactics will change. Maybe that will mean more punt blocks — LSU hasn’t really rushed many punters in recent seasons — or some creative blocking schemes on kicks. We don’t know how these position coaches will handle substitutions or getting players lined up. We don’t know which players even fit the best in each return slot.

And we won’t find out until it’s time to suit up.