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2014 MSU Position Previews - Special Teams

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MSU's special teams were laughably bad last year. Will a new special teams coach help usher in an era of competence? Or will the farce continue?

Spruce Derden-USA TODAY Sports

Last October, I took a mid-season look at State's special teams and chronicled the trials and tribulations of that unit under Mullen's tutelage. At the time, it was evident that the wheels had started falling off the wagon. Each year since Mullen arrived, field goals had gotten worse. The punt team, which had been a strength in previous years, had become surprisingly bad. And MSU's coverage of and blocking on kickoffs had been wildly inconsistent.

As we all know, things didn't get any better after that. Missed field goals became the norm. We had no return game to speak of, either on punts or kickoffs. We seemed to get a kick blocked every couple of games.

How big of a poopcicle was MSU special teams, you ask? Take a gander at this:

The Horror

Special Teams Category

Rank in SEC Play

Average Punt Distance

11th

Punt Return Average

12th

Opponents' Punt Return Average

7th

Punt Blocks Allowed

14th

Average Kickoff Distance

11th

Kickoff Return Average

14th

Opponents' Kickoff Return Average

10th

Kickoff Touchback %

12th

Field Goal Success Rate

14th[1]

Field Goal Blocks Allowed

14th[2]

So, in sum, State absolutely sucked at every single phase of special teams with the sole exception of punt coverage, which was mediocre. And those are just the easily measured failures. There are likely a plethora of other metrics that demonstrate how abysmal things were. For instance, did you know that MSU was one of only three teams in the conference that gave up a punt return for a TD in an SEC game last year, and that it was one of only four SEC teams that didn't block a punt or field goal in SEC play? Hooray!

In the offseason, Mullen finally seemed to acknowledge this shortcoming, handing the reins of the special teams to assistant coach Greg Knox. I have no idea if Knox will fare much better—though the success Knox's running backs have had at MSU is unquestionable, the man hasn't coached special teams since the early 1990s. But he sure as hell can't do worse.

While this change in leadership is long overdue, it may be unreasonable to expect a sea change in performance, at least from the specialists themselves. The one fairly reliable performer of the bunchpunter Baker Swedenburgis gone, and the two guys who infuriated fans to no endDevon Bell and Evan Sobieskare back. Bell seems to be a much better fit as a punter, so hopefully we won't have to endure any more of his field-goal face-palms this year. Sobiesk, though, is apparently still one of our options at placekicker. The thought of seeing him trot out with a game on the line this season is, to put it mildly, disturbing.

There is some hope, however, that one or more of the newcomers can make an immediate difference. J.J. McGrath, a transfer from Michigan, where he was a preferred walk-on, seems to at least know what he's doing. [What's that? McGrath left the team a couple of days ago? Sweet!] Logan Cooke, a first year player who was ranked as the second best punter and kickoff man in the country by 247Sports, is impressing people thus far in fall camp. He may not immediately push Bell too much for playing time, but healthy competition can only be a good thing. Just look at Westin Graves. He's another walk on, but is already listed at second on the depth chart at the placekicker position. [And, hey, now that McGrath is gone, he's just about the only other option there is. So good luck, Mr. Graves. Lord knows we're due for some.]

Aside: Did you know that there was a whole website devoted to news about kickers in the NCAA, NFL, and, I kid you not, the CFL?

As for the future of State's coverage and return units, who knows what's in store. The blocking on our returns has obviously been lacking, as has the kick coverage. I assume this is an area that may be immediately affected by coaching, but maybe that's just wishful thinking.

The returners we have coming backeveryone other than Perkinslook good on paper. We all know the names—Lewis, Holloway, Redmond, and Malcolm Johnson. I'm among those that would love to see Holloway take well to this role, given the guy's sheer speed. He's shown flashes, but just hasn't put it all together yet.

So, what should we expect from special teams this year? I think we'll see some improvement on punts and kickoffs, if only because it got so bad that it could actually be more difficult to maintain that level of deficiency than improve. But then there's field goals. I don't know about y'all, but I'm going to have to actually see the ball going through the uprights on a regular basis to believe that we have a serviceable placekicker on the roster.



[1] National rank in this category: 122nd.

[2] National rank in this category: 116th.