HOOVER, Ala. — For Gus Malzahn, Auburn football’s quarterback situation isn’t the biggest concern for 2017. It’s not how first-year coordinator Chip Lindsey will implement his offense. Actually, it doesn’t have anything to do with offense — or defense.
“The punter position is the biggest question mark we have going into the season,” Malzahn said Thursday at SEC Media Days.
On an Auburn team that returns a lot of experience and has a lot of depth, the punter job truly is a mystery heading into fall camp. Last season, senior Kevin Phillips helped out Auburn’s defense in the field position battle by hitting plenty of high punts that were rarely returned.
While some fans may brush off the concerns at punter, Malzahn sees it as a crucial role in 2017. The top Auburn teams of recent years — including 2013, 2010 and 2004 — had a common theme of strong special teams play. Auburn has the top kicker in the country in Daniel Carlson, one of three Lou Groza Award finalists last year.
But the Tigers don’t have a punter to match him at the moment.
Rising sophomore Ian Shannon was on track to take over Phillips’ job in 2017. But the former top-five kicking prospect just hasn’t clicked at Auburn in practices or his minimal game experience. Shannon averaged an underwhelming 30.7 yards on three punts last fall for the Tigers.
In the spring, Shannon didn’t lock down the starting role as Auburn’s punter. Now, Malzahn is turning the heat on the sophomore by introducing Carlson to the race in camp.
“Ian and Daniel will battle that thing out,” Malzahn said. “Daniel has done that before as a true freshman.”
But Auburn doesn’t want Carlson to punt in 2017. He was a do-it-all specialist in 2014 as a redshirt freshman, and his output suffered on both sides.
“It’s a different swing,” Carlson said Thursday. “It’s difficult for some. Some guys do both. It’s also difficult on your leg because it’s a little like baseball pitching. You can only do so many reps before you start tearing your shoulder. You have to be smart with that.”
Daniel might not be the only Carlson to put pressure on Shannon this fall. True freshman Anders Carlson, Daniel’s younger brother, can punt as well.
According to the older Carlson, though, Auburn wants to save his brother’s kicking leg for the future. Carlson is expected to learn from Daniel as a redshirted player this year and then take over the job in 2018.
“He did it for the team (in high school), but he didn’t really focus on it,” Carlson said. “He keeps it in his back pocket, just like I do. But I don’t expect that he’ll ever need to use it too much. … I’m not expecting him to ever really step in there that much, except in case of an injury or something.”
Auburn added another punter to the roster this summer in walk-on Aidan Marshall. The Virginia native, whose father ran cross country on the Plains, was ranked as the No. 31 prospect in his class by Chris Sailer Kicking.
Malzahn didn’t rule out the chance of Anders Carlson or Marshall winning the job. But for now, he’s focused on the two returning players — and he’d rather have one take over soon.
“I think common sense, you’d rather have Ian win the job and have Daniel just focus on kickoffs and field goal kicking,” Malzahn said.
In the special teams department, the spotlight will be on Shannon when the Tigers return to the practice field on July 31.
Carlson believes Shannon has what it takes to turn that question mark into a solid answer.
“We’ve seen a lot of good things out of Ian,” Carlson said. “He can hit a really good punt. He’s got a lot of leg strength. He can boom it. But I think it’s just more about consistency. I think that’s what the coaches are really trying to find. Can he do it 10 out of 10 times instead of 7 out of 10 or whatever it is? We’re looking to see that.”