Auburn is thin. There are a lot of unheralded people playing special teams.
Gene Chizik calls them “the unfamiliar names.” Special teams coach Jay Boulware calls them “the others.” They’ve been called special, but in the derogatory sense. Through the first four weeks of the season soe Auburn fans called them the squad most likely to cost the Tigers in a tight SEC game. They’re making a case to have an upgrade in nomenclature.
And while you still might hold your breath at key moments, there was a lot to take away from the Tennessee victory. Chizik immediately pointed out that these Tigers are learning how to win in different ways. In Knoxville they won where they, perhaps, were the most vulnerable. In a high-flying offense everyone can pick their own most impactful play. Anyone can identify a handful of dynamic players. After the fifth win of the season two that can’t be overlooked are young Onterio McCalebb and another from the also young Philip Pierre-Louis, but in unusual roles.
Frency was solid in collecting punt returns. For a player raved about last year in fall ball, but injured as the first element of foreshadowing in 2008 and mysteriously absent thus far in 2009, his best move has been the one where he waved his hand above his head. And we might safely assume that he’s not a fan of loud noises. Even if his fair catches didn’t advance the ball the desired 10 yards he took Trooper Taylor’s advice to heart, “You want to hear how loud they can get? Drop one back here.”
When the offense clicks that rarely seen special teams stability may be enough.
Furthermore, when the other team has scored and is trying to find a little life, the thing that makes a defensive job tough is a solid return. Tennessee’s kickoff coverage is netting an average of 36.5 yards per kick. Florida, at the other end of that spectrum sits at 48.2 yards per kick. (Auburn, by comparison, sits at the statistical median in the conference at 42.9 yards per kickoff.)
No matter the numbers. When it counted McCalebb stabbed the Volunteers in their orange hearts and made them wonder why they were paying to see all of this.
Mixing the abstract is always popular when your team struggles and so Tennessee finds itself asking “What if?” about that missed field goal in the first half. It is the most fair of unfair questions. The Volunteers are now 7-of-9 in field goal attempts and had to suffer the sickening thud of a blocked extra point attempt. By contrast Wes Byrum is 10-of-11 on the year for Auburn and remains perfect on the gimmes through five games.
All of this, all of the parts of football where the foot meets the actual ball, are critical when your team struggles in the red zone. For all of his preaching that Auburn was made great long before these roaring Tigers made it to the plain, Chizik only has to point to his predecessor to demonstrate this point. Winning at the margins — rather than having offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn buy extra-wide margin paper for his statistically stupendous offense — will occasionally still be a way of life. And while Auburn didn’t have to at Tennessee, they demonstrated, for the first time, that they may have the capacity to do so when necessary.
For a bunch of guys who have even the coaches scrambling for the numerical roster in the program, this is a promising sign.
So Boulware can walk into the office this week with a bit more optimism, even if his squad is 11th in the SEC in both punting average and in net yards per punt. There must still be a bit of uneasiness elsewhere.
The arrival of special teams stability, and the absence of penalties in that phase of the game, will mollify fans a bit, there’s still a question of defense to be considered. Statistically, Auburn is last in the league in fourth down conversions, 11th in red zone defense, 10th in opponents’ third down conversions and last in allowing first downs. Some of this is situational, to be sure. Down by three scores even a conservative opponent must find ways to convert to have a hope of staying in a game. Clearly the squad is still searching for answers.
Byrum and McCalebb were the key cogs in cinching the game against Tennessee late, but situationally it shouldn’t have fallen to that stage of the contest. Early in the fourth quarter an obvious point came to mind: if the offense continues to produce, if the special teams continues their slow growth and if the defense can get off the field just a bit faster, these become Terrifying Tigers.
Kenny Smith has been online since he went to Auburn. Now he teaches journalism and online media for a living. You can find him online at www.kennysmith.org, and on Twitter @kennysmith. Write to him at [email protected].