The old saying is that special teams is one-third of the game, like offense and defense. Statistically, that isn’t quite true, but it certainly can change a game. LSU knows that well; missed kicks cost the Tigers in losses to Troy and Notre Dame in 2017, and made kicks were the difference in wins over Auburn in 2017 and then again last year.
Welllllll...that guy is not here anymore.
Now, overall, LSU made huge strides in special teams overall — from 86th in special teams S&P+ in 2017 to 3rd last year. Having Cole Tracy was a big part of that, but overall coverage was much better, and the punt/kickoff units netted major field-position advantages.
Special teams coach Greg McMahon gets some scheme credit there, but more importantly, he helped recruit Tracy, kickoff specialist Avery Atkins and shifted punting duties to the team of Josh Growden and Zach Von Rosenberg.
Growden is no longer with the team, and of course, Tracy left after the best season in program history. But there are still some strong pieces here. The unit’s two big tasks are finding another kicker, and getting some punch back into the return game.
2019 LSU Specialists
|39 Jack Gonsoulin (Jr.)||5-9, 165|
|34 Connor Culp (Jr.)||6-0, 203|
|36 Cade York (Fr.)||6-2, 189|
|46 Zach Von Rosenberg (Jr.)||6-5, 245|
|32 Avery Atkins (So.)||6-1, 210|
|22 Clyde Edwards-Helaire (Jr.)||5-9, 212|
|Justin Jefferson||6-3, 192|
|Jontre Kirklin||6-0, 185|
|48 Blake Ferguson (Sr.)||6-4, 235|
|47 Quentin Skinner (Fr.)||6-0, 253|
Even with some open spots, the key players here are still pretty known, with Von Rosenberg back at punter, Atkins handling kickoffs and Blake Ferguson returning as deep snapper. Clyde Edwards-Helaire will also return as kickoff returner.
At kicker, true freshman Cade York has been anointed as the chosen one since early in the summer, and classmate Derek Stingley Jr. is likewise slated to step in as the punt returner.
Junior Connor Culp was notably inconsistent in 2017, hitting some clutch longer kicks against Auburn but also missing several kicks inside of 35 yards over the course of the year. Its pretty clear that the coaches want to give York that first shot at the job. The plaudits are great, and so are any and all positive practice reports, but ultimately we won’t know anything there until shoe hits leather in an actual game. It’s not fair to expect York to be as automatic as Tracy, especially not from long range. But if he can be perfect on extra points and consistent inside of 35 yards, he’ll be what LSU needs.
Punt returner was a real source of consternation last year. Nobody was truly reliable, whether it was on catching the ball or decision-making regarding returns, out of the now-departed Jonathan Giles, Justin Jefferson or Jontre Kirklin. And clearly the coaches never trusted any other players on the team to handle the job, either.
We know that Stingley is a special athlete, and he was a dynamic return man in high school. But much like York, we’ll find out what he can really do in real game time.
Some would like to see a more explosive player than Edwards-Helaire take over at kickoffs, but with the new kickoff rules, its just not as important of a position. Last year LSU only returned 18 out of 57 total kickoffs; most kicks either just go out of the back of the endzone, or are so high and deep that returns are all but neutered. And with 25 free yards available, a returner has to do that much more to add value.
Von Rosenberg has already shown he can handle long-range punting duties, what remains to be seen is if he can take on the short-range/directional role as well. Growden was inconsistent overall, but seemed to find his niche late last season. Watch for Atkins to chip in there as well if Von Rosenberg struggles a bit.