The Starters: PK/KS Wes Byrum (6’2″, 216, Sr.); P Ryan Shoemaker (6’0″, 177, Sr.); KR Demond Washington (5’9″, 182, Sr.), Onterio McCalebb (5’10”, 171, So.); PR Quindarius Carr (6’1″, 186, Jr.); DS Josh Harris (6’1″, 230, Jr.); H Neil Caudle (6’3″, 198, Sr.)
The Backups: PR Darvin Adams (6’3″, 185, Jr.), Trovon Reed (6’0″, 181, Fr.); KR Mario Fannin (5’11”, 228, Sr.), Neiko Thorpe (6’2″, 186, Jr.); PK/KS Cody Parkey (6’0″, 184, Fr.); P Steven Clark (6’5″, 232, Fr.)
No way to really pull all this together in one tidy package, so we’ll just take it unit-by-unit:
Field goal: It couldn’t really have gone much better than 15-of-16, 54-of-54, and zero kicks blocked, could it? No, no it could not.
Which is why, in one sense, this is the one part of special teams you might expect to regress. Byrum had a couple of kicks that juuuuust shaved the inside of the upright; one or two of those are probably going to shave the other side this season by random chance. Byrum also never attempted a 50-yarder in 2009–not even one longer than 46 yards after the 49-yard half-ender against La. Tech–and as aggressive as we know Malzahn and Chizik will be, it seems unlikely that after the year Byrum just had, they won’t try him from a little longer, more difficult distance. Oh, and after a perfect year last year, the one extra point in a hundred Byrum might miss might come again this season.
But that doesn’t mean Byrum’s headed for a bad year … in fact, if the offense performs the way we expect it to perform, he’ll finish with far more opportunities, far more points, and hopefully the Groza Finalist/All-SEC honors he was somewhat unjustly denied a year ago. Besides, the truest measure of a placekicker isn’t just the routine kicks–it’s the pressure-packed game-winners, and Byrum hasn’t even had to face one since his ridonkulous 2007. (No, I don’t think the 21-yarder in the first OT against Northwestern entirely counts.) If he can give us some more of that brand of magic, I don’t think anyone will sweat a miss here or there.
Field goal block: One of the secret successes of Auburn’s special teams last year was the stunning success the Tigers enjoyed in kick blocking–they got four of them, tied for 15th in the country even with punts included. One of those led to the touchdown that kept Auburn in the Kentucky game, and two extra point blocks–one against Ole Miss returned for two points just as the Rebels began to threaten, the other against Northwestern–each proved critical. Whatever Tracy Rocker and Jay Boulware are doing here, it’s working, and there doesn’t seem to be any reason for decline.
Punting: A couple of times last year, Jay Boulware would mention how proud he was of Clinton Durst punting the ball either 31 yards out-of-bounds or sky-high 33 yards, and I would wonder, “is that really the best we can do?”
And when you look at where Auburn finished in terms of defending the returns Durst’s punts actually allowed–i.e. 106th, with the average return covering nearly 13 yards–you realize, “yes,that was the best we could do.” Given those kinds of struggles and the block given up against Miss. St., maybe we should have thanked Durst a little harder for even getting Auburn up to 64th. This represented a big swoon from the 18th-place finish in 2008, but it could have been worse.
And this year should be better. Shoemaker may have been Dursted out of the job the last two years, but the talent he showed back in 2007 should still be there … or he wouldn’t have even won the job back from Clark. Durst’s raw average a year ago, just under 40 yards a boot, should certainly be attainable. The return coverage, meanwhile, should be dramatically improved thanks to having, you know, actual scholarship athletes on the unit. They can’t get any worse, can they? Keep the punting quality about the same, cover better, and a step forward should be simple … even if I doubt Shoemaker quite has the goods to get Auburn back to the 2008 standard.
The one potential issue: the last time we saw Shoemaker, it was the 2008 LSU meeting and he was using his single appearance of the season to help toss away a victory with a number of shanks. We’re assuming he’s got himself mentally repaired, and that even if he hasn’t, we’ve got Clark anyway. But it’s something worth keeping an eye on.
Punt return: What’s there to say? When Auburn attempted a return, they averaged 4.46 yards a pop, the 113th-best mark in D-I. And of course a 4.46 yard return was actually a positive development–it meant that the Tigers had dared put their hands on the ball and not given it away. That didn’t happen all that often, as Mario Fannin’s muff on the first return of the year set a tone the unit never shook.
There’s nowhere to go but up, thankfully, but even so the coaches don’t seem to be taking any chances with butterfingers again: having a gangly possession receiver listed as the co-starter on the depth chart is a clear signal Chizik and Co. are valuing nothing more our of their returners this year than ball security.
Which, hey, fine by me, and in Carr they have a guy who did manage to avoid catastrophe last year. Between Carr’s ascension and the same increase in across-the-board athleticism on the unit, we really shouldn’t see the same brand of disaster we saw last year. But unless Reed or some other late-comer steals the job away and proves to be both reliable and a sudden threat, the days of Robert Dunn won’t be back just yet.
Kickoff coverage: MAKE IT STOP, AUBURN. 97th in kickoff return coverage, mediocre in kickoff distance and touchback percentage, and at an average number of kickoffs per-game of 5.3–higher than all but one other team ranked 85th or higher (at least it’s Alabama)–suffering more from it than their fellow suckees. Momentum was almost always a fleeting prospect for Auburn last year, because scoring also meant putting the opponent’s kickoff return on the field.
The good news is that–one more time–it can’t get any worse. Byrum’s probably not due for a sudden increase in his kickoff distance (and Morgan Hull is no longer an option), but getting non-walk-ons onto the unit should pay dividends, and just-plain-luck should dictate things won’t be quite so terrible this go-round.
Still, unless Parkey proves to be some kind of kickoff-specialist phenomenon (the only way he’ll avoid a redshirt), it’s hard to see this becoming a strength overnight. Expect a few more hair-pulling moments.
Kickoff return: Here’s where it gets fun, finally. Demond Washington only returned 16 kickoffs last season … but he averaged more on those 16 attempts than all but five other returners in the country and turned one of them into a touchdown. Having Washington handling returns from the start of the season should make Auburn on the country’s most dangerous kick return teams, and it’s not just him–with Onterio McCalebb proving against Tennessee that he also has the potential to take one the distance, no part of Auburn’s special teams will be more exciting … or productive.
Byrum goes 23-29 for the year but beats either Arkansas or Georgia on a last-second kick from 40-plus-yards … Carr provides security but so little threat at punt returner the coaches begin experimenting with Reed, who finally takes over the job with three games to play … Auburn finishes between 30 and 50 in national net punting and 50 and 70 in kickoff coverage … both Clark and Parkey redshirt … Washington takes two kicks back for touchdowns, averages better than 30 yards a return (again), and makes first-team All-SEC as a returner.
THE UNIT’S FINAL GRADE ON AN UNNECESSARILY PRECISE FIVE-STAR SCALE