Auburn kicker Wes Byrum had a stellar year in 2009 as a member of the Auburn special teams. He was almost perfect. He made all 54 point after attempts and nailed 15 of 16 field goals. Byrum finished the year as a finalist for the Lou Groza Award for the nation's top kicker. At the same time Auburn was last in the SEC in punt return production and repeatedly gave up yardage on kickoffs. Coach Gene Chizik said during SEC Media Days that the Tigers overall goal for 2010 is consistency.
Well it's no secret that no other Tiger unit showed more inconsistency in 2009 than special teams. There is an old football axiom that says, "Defense wins championships." A parallel axiom could certainly be that, "Poor special teams lose games." In the case of the 2009 Tigers it could be argued that the unit cost Auburn at least three wins and made some victories more difficult. Too many times Auburn's special teams were anything but special, leaving even the most casual observer wondering, "Will the kickoffs in 2010 make it in to the end zone?" Or maybe, "Will Auburn find a punt returner that can hold onto the ball and make some yards after the catch?"
Auburn had a revolving door of punt returners all year long. Phillip Pierre-Louis, Demond Washington, Anthony Gulley, and Mario Fannin all held the job at various times. All four of them had instances of bobbling or fumbling the ball.
While it's a fact of life that no one seems to notice special team performers until they mess up, Auburn return men only averaged 4.5 yards when they did hold on to the ball. On the other hand the Tigers gave up an average of 13 yards on punt returns. That's an 8.5 yard deficit in punt yardage production. To be effective punt returns should pick up at least 10 yards, the equivalent of a first down. It's easy to see that the return yard average coupled with ball control issues, made the punting game the obvious sore spot for the fans.
Nevertheless, the most costly part of special teams was actually the kickoffs. Auburn's average kickoff for the year was to the 31 yard line and many times their opponents started at or past the 40. It is amazing that Auburn had an eight win season while allowing opponents that much of an advantage. No team can expect to win many games giving up that kind of field position. Moreover this was a problem for the Tigers the entire year.
It would seem that the problems would've been worked out by the last game of the season. However, the Iron Bowl saw the Tigers kicking the ball out of bounds and continually giving Alabama good field position. Alabama's average field position after receiving kickoffs was the 42 yard line. On top of that, Javier Arenas returned a punt 56 yards to set up an Alabama field goal.
Coach Chizik addressed the issue and made special teams a priority in the 2010 recruiting class by signing two of the top kickers in the country. Steven Clark out of Kansas City, Missouri was ranked as the 21st best punter in the nation and is expected to push senior Ryan Shoemaker for the starting position. Cody Parkey the nation's number one kicker out of Jupiter, Florida will be the backup to Byrum and may handle kickoffs.
The 2009 punting was handled by Clinton Durst who has graduated. He was a reliable punter that averaged nearly 41 yards per punt and forced 25 fair catches, placing the ball inside the 20 yard line 21 times. He will be replaced by Shoemaker with backup expected from Clark.
Hopefully the addition of Parkey and Clark will alleviate the problem in 2010 of giving opponents too good of a field position. Parkey should get the nod to handle kickoffs since he had the ability to put it in the end zone most every time in high school. Forcing the other team to start at the 20 goes a long way in helping your defense keep the opponents out of your own end zone.
With Byrum returning, Shoemaker or Clark replacing Durst, and new speed recruited to the coverage team, the Tigers seem to be poised to have a solid special teams unit in 2010, with one exception ... a reliable punt returner.
Possible punt returners for 2010 could be Quindarius Carr, Phillip Pierre-Louis, Onterio McCalebb, Anthony Gulley, Demond Washington, Darvin Adams, Mario Fannin, and Eric Smith. Reports out of Auburn the past week are that Fannin, Smith, and Carr are looking particularly good in practices.
However, players looked good in practice last year as well. Special teams Coach Jay Boulware is going to have to get the right guy to address the 2009 punt yardage deficit. Most Auburn people are hoping that last year's punt return men were just having an off year. It does happen.
It's not uncommon for players to have some issues to work through. Robert Dunn struggled in 2006 and went on to finish his Auburn career as one of the best punt return men of the Tuberville era. Wes Byrum had his low points during his sophomore year. Despite those struggles, he is now in the top five on Auburn's all time top five list in extra points/ extra point attempts, top five in field goals/ field goal attempts, and is number three on the list of most points scored by an Auburn kicker. He has a chance to finish his career as one of Auburn's all time greatest kickers.
Whatever the case, the deficit in punt return yardage has to be corrected. The way to change that deficit is to have better coverage. Immediate help could come from the addition of new and possibly faster freshmen to the coverage team. At the same time, the yardage deficit can be addressed by simply having a good punt returner.
Yet that may not be so simple. After all, the coaches could not find a dependable return man in all of 2009. Therefore the big question for special teams at the beginning of the season is still, "Who will be Auburn's punt return man?" If that can be answered successfully, then ...
Auburn's special teams have a chance to truly be special in 2010.