Today, we unveil the seventh set of our national unit rankings, on special teams. We are revealing one unit per day; it started with offensive backfields, and receiving corps, offensive lines, defensive lines, linebackers and secondaries have followed. The series ends Monday with coaching staffs.
These rankings take into account what the players have accomplished, how we think the players will do this season and sheer talent. Production does trump potential.
Here are the special teams rankings. Next up: coaching staffs.
The buzz: P Steven Clark is a master at downing the ball inside the 20. Of his 72 punts last season, 33 landed inside the 20. He also averaged 40.8 yards per attempt. K Cody Parkey has a strong leg but most become more consistent. He was 13 of 18 last season, with four of the misses coming from beyond 40 yards. RBs Tre Mason and Onterrio McCalebb are dangerous kick returners; both had return TDs last season. (Mason’s dad, Vincent, is a member of the rap group De La Soul and is known as "Maseo.") The punt coverage was good, the kickoff coverage mediocre.
The buzz: The coverage units must improve; the punt coverage, especially, was egregiously bad (112th nationally, and the Hogs allowed two TDs). But every other facet of special teams looks good. K Zach Hocker has a strong leg and hit 21 of his 27 attempts last season. Dylan Breeding averaged 45.3 yards per punt. Both should vie for All-SEC honors. Backup RB Dennis Johnson is an excellent kick returner; he holds the school record with 102 career kickoff returns and is tied for fourth on the SEC's career list with three kick returns for touchdowns. His career kickoff return average of 24.3 yards ranks fifth in school history. The Hogs do need a new punt returner.
The buzz: As with Arkansas, Nebraska's coverage units need improvement – vast improvement. The Huskers allowed 24.0 yards per kickoff return, which ranked 104th nationally, and 11.9 yards per punt return, which ranked 105th. The biggest positive is Brett Maher, who is one of the nation's top two dual-threat kicker/punters. He averaged 44.5 yards per punt and dropped 25 of 59 inside the 20. He also was 19 of 23 on field goals, including 3 of 6 from beyond 50 yards. Maher also had 20 touchbacks on his 72 kickoffs. Backup TB Ameer Abdullah is an excellent kick returner; he averaged 29.3 yards per return and took one back for a TD. Backup WR Jamal Turner should be the punt returner.
The buzz: K Jeremy Shelley and P Cody Mandell return. Shelley does not have a strong leg, but did convert 21 of 27 chances last season. He was just 2 of 6 from beyond 40 yards and his longest conversion was a 44-yarder. Cade Foster handled longer attempts last season, but he was just 2 of 9. Mandell averaged 39.3 yards, but almost half his punts (17 of 39) resulted in fair catches. The Tide needs a new return man after the graduation of WR Marquis Maze, who handled kickoffs and punts. But there are numerous candidates. Punt coverage was a positive for the Tide last season, but the kickoff coverage needs to improve. Alabama gave up two kick-return TDs.
The buzz: Oklahoma has one of the best kicker-punter duos in the nation. K Michael Hunnicutt was 21 of 24, including 4 of 4 from at least 40 yards. He also nailed a 53-yarder. P Tress Way averaged 42.0 yards per attempt, and dropped 34 of his 63 punts inside the 20. The return jobs are up for grabs. Starting WR Justin Brown did an OK job as Penn State's punt returner last season and could win that role with the Sooners. OU did a nice job covering kickoffs last season, but the punt coverage was embarrassingly bad (102nd).
5. Oklahoma State
The buzz: The coverage teams were pitiful last season, with the Cowboys 108th in kickoff return defense and 98th in punt return defense. But everything else looks good. Senior Quinn Sharp might be the best punter in the nation; he also is one of the best kickers. He averaged 46.3 yards per punt last season (third nationally) and owns a career average of 45.8 yards. Last season was Sharp's first as the Cowboys' kicker and he was 22 of 25 on field-goal attempts, with a long of 46. In addition, Sharp led the nation with 61 touchbacks on kickoffs, 23 more than anyone else in the nation. Starting CB Justin Gilbert is an electrifying kick returner; he averaged 27.0 yards on 26 attempts and took two back for scores. Though Gilbert also might be used as the punt returner, that job likely goes to redshirt freshman WR David Glidden, a little guy (5 feet 7/171 pounds) who had four TDs on kick returns as a high school senior.
4. Ohio State
The buzz: New coach Urban Meyer puts a tremendous emphasis on special teams; expect to see a lot of starters on all four special teams units. K Drew Basil was 16 of 19 last season, including 6 of 8 between 40 and 49 yards. P Ben Buchanan averaged 41.3 per attempt, though he did have two blocked. RB Jordan Hall is a good kick returner, and WR Chris Fields had great success on a limited number of punt returns last season. The coverage units did a nice job last season and should be even better this fall because of how Meyer will deploy his players.
The buzz: Kicker was a weak spot last season. Alejandro Maldonado was 7 of 12, with his longest conversion from 40 yards. Rob Beard, who kicked for the Ducks in 2010 but had back and quad injuries last season, seems likely to beat out Maldonado. There are no concerns about senior P Jackson Rice, one of three finalists for the Ray Guy Award. Rice averaged 45.9 yards per attempt and was the main reason the Ducks led the nation in net punting (41.5 yards). RB/WR De'Anthony Thomas was an electrifying kick returner last season, averaging 27.3 yards on his 36 attempts and taking two back for TDs. Oregon needs a new punt returner. The kickoff coverage was good, the punt coverage adequate last season.
The buzz: The Utes had some of the best coverage teams in the nation last fall, finishing 13th in punt coverage and fifth in kickoff coverage. P Sean Sellwood averaged 45.0 yards per attempt last season and should contend for All-Pac-12 honors. K Coleman Petersen has a strong leg and made a league-high 18 field goals last season, with a long of 48. But his accuracy from beyond 40 is spotty (4 of 9 last season). WR Reggie Dunn is a solid kick returner, but the Utes need a new punt returner after backup WR Griff McNabb transferred to FCS school Southern Utah in June. Backup WR Charles Henderson should be the guy.
The buzz: LSU has perhaps the best kicker/punter combination in the nation with senior K Drew Alleman and sophomore P Brad Wing. Alleman is a former walk-on who 16 of 18 on field-goal attempts last season; his leg is not all that strong, as he attempted just three fields from at least 40 yards (he made all three, though). Wing is an Aussie who attended his senior year of high school in Baton Rouge. He averaged 44.1 yards per punt, and 23 of his 50 attempts landed inside the 20. LSU's coverage teams were excellent last season, not surprising considering the roster is stocked with stud athletes. One issue is that LSU needs new return men. WRs Jarvis Landry, Odell Beckham and Russell Shepard are the leading candidates for the two jobs. All three are shifty with good speed.
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