Sam Spiegelman/SEC Country
Ed Orgeron went outside the box in addressing special teams this season. So far the results are mixed.

Analysis: Is LSU’s multi-headed approach to special teams actually working?

Alex Hickey

BATON ROUGE, La. — Seemingly every move Ed Orgeron has made since taking over as LSU’s coach in the middle of last season has turned to gold.

Opening up the offense? Check. Getting more former players involved at games via the Tiger Walk? Also a success. And that’s just to name a couple prominent examples.

But the jury is still out on one of Orgeron’s more unconventional decisions going into this season.

One of his first actions upon taking over as full-time coach was canning special teams coordinator Bradley Dale Peveto — a warranted choice given the poor on-field results last season. But rather than replacing Peveto with another special teams coordinator, Orgeron elevated graduate assistant and ace recruiter Dennis “Meatball” Johnson to outside linebackers coach.

There is a method to that madness.

Because the NCAA permits only nine full-time assistant coaches, Johnson’s promotion left no room for a special teams coordinator. With Orgeron, recruiting is everything — hence the need for a coach like “Meatball” on the staff. But it also means the Tigers have to tackle special teams by committee. It helps that there is a shepherd to guide those many coaches in the right direction. Former New Orleans Saints special teams coordinator Greg McMahon serves as a consultant who can lay out a plan, but can’t interact with players during games and practices.

Given LSU’s lack of success on special teams last season, it’s a bold strategy. And thus far in 2017, the results have been mixed.

LSU special teams primary coaching responsibilities

Coach Responsibilities
Jeff Grimes (OL coach) Field goal protection
Chris Forestier (GA) Holder, snapper, kicker
Dennis Johnson (OLB) Kickoffs
Mickey Joseph (WR) Kickoff returns
Tommie Robinson (RB) Punt unit
Corey Raymond (DB) Punt returns

The cons

lsu-kicker competition-connor culp
Connor Culp was replaced as LSU’s kickoff man, but took over placekicking duties against Chattanooga. (Sam Spiegelman/SEC Country)

LSU has been suspect kicking field goals so far, using both Jack Gonsulin and Connor Culp. Gonsulin is 2-for-4 with both makes coming under 30 yards. That led to Culp taking over midway through the Chattanooga game. He promptly missed a 47-yarder into the wind, but bounced back to hit one from 45 yards out in the fourth quarter.

Ed Orgeron joked about inserting Arden Key at kicker this week, which Culp took in stride. Sort of.

“I laughed it off. I know what type of guy he is,” Culp said. “He supports us 100 percent. If anything, it motivated me to do better to kind of prove him wrong.”

The kicking competition is a weekly one, with the kicker who performs best in practice getting the nod.

But when it comes to fixing technique, the kickers themselves are responsible for making those improvements.

“Chris doesn’t really know enough to help us with our technique. We kind of help each other,” Culp said. “He’s out there charting hang times and distances, good/no-good. Making sure the snap and hold are good. He’s more out there for structural sort of things.”

Culp’s quote is eye-catching, but he is quick to point out that there wasn’t a coach to help with technique last year, either. He says there never really is for kickers at this level.

“It’s just the kickers [who know technique],” Culp said. “We all have a lot of experience kicking. We all have different styles kicking. But we can generally give advice to someone else.”

The pros

Culp handled kickoff duties in Week 1 before being replaced by Cameron Gamble. Three of Gamble’s eight kickoffs were touchbacks, which is closer to what Orgeron wants to see this year.

Last season the kickoff specialists were told to be more directional. This year the mandate is simple — try to knock it out of the end zone.

“When Coach [McMahon] came in and told us how we were going to do kickoffs, me and Connor both kind of simultaneously had a sigh of relief. ‘Oh, thank God,’” Gamble said. “This is so much better than worrying about ‘I need to have it in a certain place.’ I just need to kick it in the end zone far enough for a touchback. This is nice.”

Culp agrees that even though it may seem like there are too many cooks in the kitchen, things are actually more simplified this year.

“We’re all disciplined enough to know what we need to do that day and get work in,” Culp said. “I’d actually say it’s more organized than last year.”

No one can argue with the success of LSU’s punt and punt return units, either. D.J. Chark had a return touchdown nullified due to penalty, but took the next one back to the house from 65 yards. Both returns featured massive lanes.

No opponent has had a chance to do the same against LSU. All five Tiger punts have either been downed or fair caught.

The verdict

It’s still too early to tell whether this unconventional approach to special teams will hold up. The first two games have given indicators that LSU could improve dramatically from last year. But they’ve also show flashes of being the Tigers’ Achilles Heel.

LSU’s first jump into SEC play Saturday at Mississippi State should give us a better idea of whether this unit will be a strength, weakness or a weekly mixed bag of both.