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Fixing the Failed Special Teams

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The unit is broken. So what now?

NCAA Football: Citrus Bowl-Louisiana State vs Louisville
Need a replacement
Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

In our recent SEC special teams rankings, we were all fairly harsh on the Tigers, ranking them near the bottom of an underwhelming group. A few short years ago, LSU was known first and foremost for its special teams prowess. Now, the unit is building almost from scratch.

Paul made a scathing point: there’s nothing the special teams does well right now. What is there to build on as the foundation for a return to even an average unit, much less an elite one. Special teams is an unfortunately broad term covering field goals, kickoffs, returns, and coverage. So let’s look at the component parts and where LSU can go from here.

KICKING

Last year, LSU finished ninth in the SEC in field goal kicking, hitting at a 73.3-percent rate (11 of 15). That’s not great, but it’s also not all that bad. Part of the problem here is that LSU ranked near the bottom of the SEC in red-zone field goals. This is both good and bad. You want your red zone trips to result in touchdowns, not field goals, and LSU ranked fourth in touchdown percentage. However, you also want a lot of red zone trips. LSU’s 40 trips to the red zone ranked dead last in the SEC. Yes, we played less games, but even giving an extra game, LSU would be near the bottom.

Colby Delahoussaye won’t return this season, but let’s look at his field goal rates to give an idea of how LSU wants to improve its kicking game. He was a perfect 7-7 inside 30 yards, and 2-3 from 30-39. So, on the kicks that a team absolutely counts on you to make, he came though 9 of 10 times. No issues there.

The problem was that LSU could not hit a kick from distance. Anything over 40 yards was an adventure, and Colby hit only 2-4 from 40-49, missing an additional attempt from beyond 50. His longest field goal of the season was a mere 44 yards. LSU needs to find someone with more leg.

On the other hand, opposing kickers turned into David Browndyke against us. Opponents went a perfect 18 of 18 from inside 40, and even more remarkably, went 6-7 from 40-49, adding in one 51-yarder for good measure. LSU opposing kickers went 25 for 26 on the year which would make that amalgam kicker a Lou Groza contender. Just on odds alone, chances are that won’t happen again.

KICKOFFS

LSU employed a frankly insane strategy of not aiming for touchbacks which I’m hoping is tossed in the dustbin of history. Really, a kickoff return is hoping something bad doesn’t happen. Giving the other team the ball on the 25 is terrific, and there’s no risk. A kicker should have two goals: get a touchback so there is no return and failing that, don’t kick it out of bounds (giving them the ball at the 40).

LSU was terrible at both of these things. LSU’s kickers achieved a touchback on 20.9-percent of kickoffs, 13th in the SEC by mere decimal points. Then, they booted three balls out of bounds, the fourth-worst mark in the conference. But hey, at least our average kick was 61.30 yards, 10th in the SEC.

To give our special teams credit, they were terrific at coverage. LSU allowed 4.1 returns a game, more than anyone in the SEC other than Arkansas, but never allowed a touchdown return. Additionally, the 18.8 return average allowed was the second lowest in the conference. They played with fire, but never got burned.

You would think with all of the athletes LSU has on the roster, the Tigers would get that back when it was their return to return kicks. Not so much. LSU averaged just 19.1 yards per return themselves, 11th in the SEC. And no, there were no touchdowns. LSU needs to find an explosive kickoff returner along with a kicker who can reliably get the ball to the end zone.

PUNT COVERAGE

Josh Growden was just a freshman so there’s room to improve, but he had one of the lowest punting averages in the SEC, ranking 10th out of the 12 qualifiers as the team finished 10th overall as well. To give credit, LSU did get something out of those slightly shorter kicks, a tight lid on the return game.

LSU punted 57 times and allowed only 11 returns all year. Only Auburn and State allowed fewer punts to be returned, and only Auburn would then allow fewer total return yards overall. LSU would allow just 38 yards of punt returns all season long, a minuscule 3.45-yard average return. So team’s rarely got a return and when they did, it went nowhere.

Overall, when LSU punted the ball, the net yardage on the exchange was 40.68 yards, right about league average. Alabama led the league at 43.57 net average, but Georgia brought up the rear at 35.77. However, one benefit of LSU’s strategy was the lack of big returns. Two schools with better net averages allowed touchdown returns, while LSU allowed none. Sure, you’d like an extra yard or two on the punt, but if that’s what it takes to totally negate the return game, it’s worth it. The coverage unit is still stout.

PUNT RETURNS

Again, opposing kickers somehow became awesome against LSU last year. The average punt against LSU went 44.49 yards. There’s not much you can do about that. What you can affect is the return game, and LSU return 24 punts at a 7.75 average. That’s not terribly good, ranking ninth in the SEC.

Because of seemingly facing Brad Wing every week coupled with a less than stellar return game, LSU ranked 13th in the SEC in net average when receiving punts at 41.95. LSU essentially gave away it’s great coverage unit in its return game and on an exchange of punts was actually slightly in the negative (-1.27 difference between coverage and returns). LSU is not supposed to be in the negative here. We’re not used to seeing our special teams lose hidden yards.

But the team did return a punt for a touchdown, so it wasn’t a total loss.

NEW FACES

Coach O has to replace his kicker as well as his sole punt returner in Tre White. However, Josh Growden returns as punter as well as every player who returned a kickoff, though it is doubtful Derrius Guice will continue in that role. Donte Jackson was second in number of returns but tops in average, so he might see a larger role.

LSU should see some improvement in special teams simply by our opponent’s regression to the mean. Opposing kickers and punters were truly exceptional against LSU last season and that’s not the kind of thing that usually repeats itself. The coverage units are in good shape as well.

Really, LSU needs to find a kicker who can hit a long field goal and reach the end zone on kickoffs with reliability. Then, there’s trying to find an explosive playmaker who can handle punt returns. It’s not like there’s a shortage of options. Finding one could be the key to the season, and a return to an elite special teams unit.