Quan Bray, Corey Grant, Jimmy Hutchison, Forest Hill
Daniel Carlson, Corey Grant, Ricardo Louis
Ian Shannon, Jason Smith
Causes for Optimism:
Well, we know Carlson can kick field goals. He's said he's confident from 60 in, and he didn't really miss anything in the ranges you expect your kicker to never miss from. The issue for Carlson last season was that he was being asked to take on the roles of place kicker, kickoff man, and punter. That's a lot for one person to handle.
Right now I expect someone else (probably Ian Shannon) to take on the punting role. That will relieve some of the stress from Carlson. If there's one thing Auburn has done well in the last decade or more, it's recruit excellent kickers.
In the return game, we're back to where we were last season. I was worried about who would take over punt returns with Chris Davis, Jr gone. Quan Bray stepped up to that role and owned it. He averaged 18.13 yards/return and took two to the house. Who will replace him? There are a number of candidates, but my money is on Jason Smith taking on that role. The only other Tiger to field a punt last season was Marcus Davis, who grabbed two. He didn't do too shabby, though, averaging 15.50 yards on those two returns.
As with last season, my first priority: CATCH THE DANG BALL. After that, a big return is just icing on the cake. The fumbled return against UGA was a big turning point in that game, last season. It sucked the life from a defense that had performed fairly well in that game until then.
Corey Grant led Auburn with 403 yards last season in kick returning. Ricardo Louis was second, and it wasn't close. Louis had 171 return yards. I expect the return team this season will be Louis and Roc Thomas, although it could be a DB or another WR back there deep, too. I haven't kept up as much in the kickoff games.
Causes For Concern:
If you glance up to the "key losses," there's a name there you may not recognize. Forrest Hill. Hill was Auburn's long-snapper. That is a position everyone overlooks, but is such a key to special teams. Auburn has had some great ones. Josh Harris is still in the League with the Falcons. Forrest Hill was excellent at his job while at Auburn.
Now the Tigers have to replace him, and I'll be honest when I tell you I don't know which of the players currently listed as "LS" on the roster will take the role. I hope they're as good as Hill and Harris were, though.
For the rest, I will always worry about punt returns. I don't think I'll ever not worry about them. It will be a few games into the season before I feel comfortable enough with the returners to relax. A bit. Maybe.
Steven Clark was such a big weapon for Auburn in 2013, and we missed him last season. No one was able to take the punter role from Daniel Carlson, and that's something Auburn can't afford in 2015. We need a punter to step up and take that load off Carlson's leg. There have been promising reports out of practice in the punter race, but that's another position where we'll just have to wait and see.
Carlson has another great year, Shannon steps up and helps out big-time in the punting game, and the returners give us some headaches, but are otherwise serviceable. Someone may step up and become a very dynamic returner. My money is on Jason Smith, there.
It's hard to really predict the performance of Special Teams. Auburn has had good special teams for the last few years, and I really don't expect the 2015 Tigers to buck that trend. I certainly hope they don't. Special Teams really can be the difference in a good and great year.