Auburn football should prioritize special teams improvement this offseason
SEC Country wants to tackle the best questions from Auburn football fans. Look for our Auburn Question of the Day every Monday through Thursday. Go here to see all of our previous answers.
After each season, Gus seems to significantly address the team's most glaring issue. (e.g. after 2014 we hired Will Muschamp to fix defense; 2016=QB) Seems punting is on his radar. What do you believe is the "Most Significant Issue" to address for 2018?
— Keith Dale Splawn (@KDSplawn) December 4, 2017
AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn football fell short of its ultimate goal in 2017 — win an SEC championship and contend for the national title — but there’s plenty of reason for optimism in 2018.
If Jarrett Stidham and Kerryon Johnson stay in school for another year, the Tigers will return all of their key skill players from an offense that ranks inside the top 25 nationally in both scoring and yards per play. The 2017 Auburn offense was by far the most balanced one of the Gus Malzahn era, and a second year under coordinator Chip Lindsey could mean big things for 2018.
Defensively, the Tigers cemented themselves as elite with a unit that ranked inside the top 10 nationally in both scoring and yards per play. Auburn is guaranteed to lose a senior linebacker and three safeties, but all of its strong defensive line is set to return. Year 3 under coordinator Kevin Steele should mean more of the same from Auburn’s defense.
So if there’s a glaring issue to address for Auburn this offseason, it’s not on offense or defense. Stidham and Lindsey brought balance to the offense. Steele has built a dominant defense. This team will have the look of an all-around contender in 2018, once the roster is finalized after the NFL draft deadline.
Special teams, however, will see a hard reset. Auburn kicker Daniel Carlson will take his school and SEC records with him to the NFL after four outstanding years. However, his last one was arguably his weakest — which isn’t surprising, considering how weak Auburn’s third unit was in 2017.
Despite returning a senior kicker, holder and snapper, Auburn had three field goals blocked, including a key one in the SEC championship game loss to Georgia last Saturday. Carlson didn’t have his best stuff, either, with a few rare misses that were on him earlier this season.
Auburn also finished the regular season with the worst kickoff coverage unit in the country by average, and it was among the 20 worst for punt coverage. Auburn’s special teams were responsible for a game-changing touchdown in a loss to LSU.
Additionally, the Tigers’ punting situation was rough. Auburn averaged less than 40 yards per punt between two punters — Ian Shannon and freshman walk-on Aidan Marshall. The latter had his good games, but Auburn clearly was at a disadvantage in the field position battle in every game it played this season. All of its opponents boasted better punters.
Auburn’s own return units had decent averages, but they were non-factors in most of the games this season.
According to Football Outsiders, Auburn ranked 28th in special teams S&P+ in 2014, followed by 17th in 2015 and 15th in 2016. This season, the Tigers are 64th in that metric.
That sudden drop coincided with the offseason departure of former special teams coordinator Scott Fountain, who took an off-field role at Georgia. Malzahn gave running backs coach Tim Horton the coordinator job and took more responsibility in coaching the unit this season.
That change did not work. Now Auburn will enter 2018 needing a new kicker, punt returner, holder and snapper. The punting situation could be drastically different with the prospective addition of Aussie Rules football import Arryn Siposs.
Will Horton continue to lead the special teams in 2018? Malzahn will already have some sort of shakeup to his staff with the addition of a 10th assistant.
While SEC Country has been told by several inside the program that the 10th assistant will most likely go on the defensive side of the ball, the addition could open the door for a change to the special teams responsibilities. A dedicated special teams coach might be the best move for the program in 2018.
Excellent special teams play helped round Auburn into a title contender in 2013. That area was its weakest link in 2017. With a balanced and experienced roster set to return in 2018 under a steady staff, special teams improvements should be a high priority for Malzahn this upcoming offseason.