Now up to part eight in the series. Remaining: schedule breakdown and prediction–coming up next–and lastly, the final preseason “What does it all mean, Basil?” column. Parts 1-7: RBs, OL, QBs, and receivers; LBs, the DL, DBs.
The Starters: PK — Wes Byrum (6-2, 209, Jr.); P — Clinton Durst (6-1, 191, Sr.); KR — Terrell Zachery (6-1, 203, Jr.), Onterio McCalebb (5-10, 164, Fr.); PR — Mario Fannin (5-11, 225, Jr.) LS — Josh Harris (6-1, 220, So.)
The Backups: PK — Morgan Hull (6-3, 199, Jr.); P — Ryan Shoemaker (6-0, 184, Jr.). I don’t believe the backups at the return positions to be settled enough to worry about.
Check this out. It’s the national net punting rankings. Auburn ranked 18th in the country. In the SEC, only Florida and Arkansas were better, and Arkansas’s punter left.
Which is why the ex-soccer player walk-on who showed up one day and made all that happen should make All-SEC this year and stake his claim as the best punter in the conference and one of the best in the nation. (That’s not hyperbole: Durst is Steele’s choice for first-team all-league and the No. 4 punter nationally.) Yeah, we said that about Shoemaker after ’07, but this story is too good not to have a happy ending. Durst was one of Auburn’s best players last year and he makes the shortlist again, without question.
Elsewhere, there’s room for improvement on last year and there’s room for decline. The former–please please please–should come from the return-to-form of Byrum. He’s sounded much more confident (and more accurate, we think) in fall practice. After that brief period in the spring where Hull and that kid with the yellow shoes* were breathing down his neck, the job’s all his now. But trying to predict exactly where a kicker’s head is at or how they’ll perform is like predicting housefly flight patterns. I’m imagining the law of averages will place Byrum somewhere between his ’07 highs and ’08 lows, but he could wind up anywhere on the spectrum.
The room for decline, unfortunately, is in the other areas of the special teams. Robert Dunn and Tristan Davis gave Auburn the best punt/kick return combo I can ever remember Auburn having, even if Dunn seemed to lose his mojo along the way. Fannin and McCalebb (in particular) seem like they’ll be capable or maybe even better than that, but matching Dunn and Davis will be a high, high hurdle to clear. Their blockers might not be as stout as the ’08 versions, either, since with such precious little scholarship depth you’re not likely to see even recognizable backups risking their necks on special teams. The expectation here is a downturn in Auburn’s return game.
Don’t ignore the change at long snapper, either. Robert Shiver spoiled us with years of solid snapping, and it doesn’t seem likely we’ll be able to go the entire season without a misstep here with Harris stepping in for his first year.
All in all, if Byrum takes the requisite step forward and the return game isn’t a disaster–oh, and Hull or Byrum can stick a few more kickoffs in the end zone–Auburn should again have a solid, better-than-average special teams unit. But after a year in which the special teams were arguably the strongest part of the team (LSU game aside, grumble Shoemaker grumble pooch kickoff grumble grumble), just avoiding an overall slip would be a heck of accomplishment.
Fannin and McCalebb look the dangerous part without ever quite breaking one; Byrum improves but falls short of recreating his ’07 form; kickoffs and kickoff coverage continue to be an issue; and Durst threatens to become an All-American.
THE UNIT’S FINAL GRADE ON AN UNNECESSARILY PRECISE FIVE-STAR SCALE
*I know his name is Chandler Brooks, but it’s more fun calling him this.