2014 Key Returnees:
Corey Grant, Quan Bray
Daniel Carlson, Stephen Roberts, Roc Thomas
Overall, I'd say this was a very good unit. Punting was troublesome to the point that our primary field goal kicker had to handle punting duties as well, but the unit as a whole performed well.
Daniel Carlson was 75% on field goals and 100% on extra points. He was 12 of 14 in the months of October and November. Missing those two field goals in the Outback Bowl were very unlike him, and hurt what could have been the best FG% for Auburn since Wes Byrum's unbelievable 93.8% (15/16) campaign in 2009. So there really was no drop off in production for the Tigers in place kicking. If you go by the difference from year to year, then Carlson's 2014 campaign was actually better than Cody Parkey's 2013 (71.4%).
Carlson only kicked three field goals all season that were between 30-39 yards according to ESPN's stats tracker. 11 of his field goals attempted were from the 20-29 yard range (all but one were good), and the other eight were from the 30-39 yard range (only four of them were good). If there's one drop off you can point to, it's that difficulty in hitting from 40+. Parkey was 5/6 on 40+ field goals in 2013, and 1/4 from 50+.
The average for Auburn has been in the 70% field goals made range over the past 6-7 years, so Carlson has continued the tradition of great kickers at Auburn. I'm pretty sure he'll continue to do so in 2015.
We did not want Carlson having to handle triple-duty on kicks (FGs, kick-offs, and punts), but that's primarily what happened throughout the 2014 season. There were experiments with other punters throughout the season, but no one was as consistent as Carlson. Punting was an area we saw a definite drop off in.
However, punters like Steven Clark aren't exactly ones you come across every day. Clark had an unbelievable ability to drop the ball deep inside the opponents 20. I'm amazed he spent last season not playing football somewhere, though he has now been signed by the Oakland Raiders.
A single kicker performing all kicking duties is never something you want. The last Auburn player to handle that was Damon Duval. So the fact that no other punter could step up with anything approaching consistency in order to take that job shows just how dire Auburn's punting problem was.
Corey Grant and Ricardo Louis handled most of the kickoff return duties for the Tigers. They did ok, though Louis did have the big fumble against Mississippi State. There were no kickoff returns for touchdowns, and no one ever really broke anything wide open. I think the best you can say about the kickoff return unit is that it was serviceable.
Punt returns are a different story. Quan Bray finished 12th in the nation in total punt return yards with 272, and was 2nd in the nation in average yards/punt with 18.1. He was one yard shy of Kansas State's Tyler Lockett (19.1). And yes, I will dredge up that at least two of Lockett's long punt returns should have been called back for clear block-in-the-back penalties in the Auburn game!
I had one major requirement from the punt returner in my preseason preview: CATCH THE DANG BALL. A discussion developed in the comments over having a dynamic athlete back there vs someone with good hands. I wanted someone who was the best of both. Someone capable of making something happen, but with reliability in fielding the punts, first. We mostly got that out of Quan Bray. The biggest instance of this being an issue was the Georgia game.
The muffed punt in that game (and the roughing the kicker penalty) absolutely destroyed what little momentum the defense had been able to build and resulted in lost possessions for the offense. It also led to the worst game of Malzahn's Auburn career. That's the perfect example of why priority #1 in punt returns should always be good hands. It only bit us once last season, but with someone less reliable than 2014 Quan Bray it could have been much worse.
Daniel Carlson is only a sophomore. So the place kicking game isn't going anywhere, and that's a good thing. Meanwhile, punter Jimmy Hutchinson has left the team and so has walk-on punter Matthew Shiel. Mississippi Gulf Coast Junior College punter Kevin Phillips has joined the team as a preferred walk-on, and Auburn signed Ian Shannon in the 2015 class. The punting competition will be very interesting. Just look at the hang-time that Phillips gets on these kicks.
As for the return game, I have no idea how that's going to look. Early spring reports are Stanton Truitt and Rock Thomas on kickoffs, and possibly Jason Smith or a number of others at punt returner. We'll get to that in our position previews for 2015 once spring practice is over, though. It's going to be a brand new return unit in both punts and kickoffs more than likely.
Unfortunately, Auburn had no need of a field goal returner in 2014, and there's no word on who may be up for the role in 2015. This still happened, though. It'll never go away, Alabama fans. Never.
Next Up: Offensive Line