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2018 LSU Football Preview: Special Teams

Kicking game will be revamped this year.

NCAA Football: Citrus Bowl-Notre Dame vs Louisiana State Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Last year, LSU attempted to work without a full-time special teams coach on staff, with Greg McMahon serving as an analyst in that area and several position coaches handling different areas of the kicking game.

The results were mixed.

Special teams S&P+ dipped from 0.2 to a -0.3 from 2016 to the 2017 season — although it’s clear in reading Bill C’s stat profiles that the major culprit being a serious drop in field goal value. The Tigers made just 16 of 27 kick attempts and missed three extra points, rotating between Connor Culp — who did, to be fair, make some huge kicks against Auburn — and Jack Gonsoulin.

Coverage units improved overall, thanks to walk-on Zach von Rosenberg emerging as a big-legged punter to go with Josh Growden as more of a directional kicker. The two combined to drop 23 punts inside the 20 on the season. D.J. Chark was a dangerous returner, but, like his predecessor Tredavious White, his decision-making skills regarding fair catches and the like were problematic at times.

McMahon has the special teams job full-time now, and some new blood on hand in hopes of an improvement.

2018 LSU Roster: Specialists

Place-Kicker Ht/Wt PAT FG Pct
Place-Kicker Ht/Wt PAT FG Pct
36 Cole Tracy (Sr.) 5-11, 188 67-67* 27-29* 93%
39 Jack Gonsoulin (So.) 5-9, 165 20-20 5-11 46%
34 Connor Culp (So.) 6-0, 203 20-23 11-16 68.80%
Punter Ht/Wt Punts Avg TB
38 Josh Growden (Jr.) 6-2, 199 23 36 0
46 Zach Von Rosenberg (So.) 6-5, 245 36 43 1
Kick-Offs Ht/Wt Kickoffs Avg TB
34 Connor Culp (So.) 6-0, 203 10 60.9 3
32 Avery Atkins (Fr.) 6-1, 210 True freshman.
Kick Returner Ht/Wt Returns Avg TD
22 Clyde Edwards-Helaire (So.) 5-9, 212 13 19 0
Long Snapper Ht/Wt
50 Blake Ferguson (Jr.) 6-4, 235
* Played for Division II Assumption College.

Projected Starting Lineup: Graduate transfer Cole Tracy was something of a controversial take in the 2018 recruiting class, but he’s expected to take over place-kicking duties. Walk-on Avery Atkins, a McMahon recruit, may handle kickoffs. Growden and Von Rosenberg will continue to tag-team the punting.

Returns are still up for grabs a bit, but Clyde Edwards-Helaire is expected to be the lead kickoff returner again. Jonathan Giles — lauded for sure hands and good judgment in the spring — could handle punt returns. But that could continue to evolve through training camp and scrimmages. Other players that could get into the mix include Ja’Marr Chase, Kelvin Joseph, Kary Vincent, Derrick Dillon or Tae Provens.

Power Point: Cole Tracy

I feel a little weird about listing a newcomer here, but when asking around the program, the graduate transfer from the Northeast is the one constant. There’s a lot of confidence in his ability to step in and be the consistent field-goal kicker that LSU didn’t have here.

And given that LSU was, essentially, three missed kicks (all inside of 40 yards) from an 11-2 record last year, that value could be a pretty significant difference in 2018.

Pressure Point: Improvement

There’s no simpler way to put it — LSU just has to get better here.

McMahon wasn’t a popular hire when Orgeron brought him on — his tenure with the New Orleans Saints did not end well, and as a former NFL coach most question what value he can add in recruiting (he had spent the previous 15 years before his Saints tenure in the college ranks). Personally, I thought he caught something of a bad wrap in NOLA, where talent really began to tail off over the final years of McMahon’s tenure.

Frankly, he’s going to be judged on Tracy’s performance more than anything right now. He identified Tracy (and Atkins) and played a major role in helping the staff recruit him (unofficially, until he was a full-time coach, obviously). Tracy took up a scholarship many fans think should have been used elsewhere. If he’s aces on kicks and LSU wins several close games, well then he’s worth it. If he’s not reliable, there will be a ton of criticism.

In general, special teams coaching is mostly about getting players to buy in. There isn’t a ton of scheming (less now as kickoffs continue to fade out) aside from kick-blocking, fakes and onside kicks, all of which can be dictated by game circumstance as much as anything.

But LSU fans became used to special teams being more of a weapon than most units. In recent years, it’s become much more of a boom/bust liability, particularly when it comes to returns. Coverage units should be fine with the linebacker, DB and receiver talent on hand. Find a steady return man, and find a kicker, and this group will be fine.