A-Day: Five Things To Watch On Special Teams


A-Day at Auburn, especially under head coach Gus Malzahn, has not exactly been a time where a lot is learned when it comes to the Tigers’ special teams.

Field goals are hardly contested. Returners are rarely live.

Instead of searching for answers at Jordan-Hare on Saturday, perhaps it’s better to identify some questions — to see where special teams stands as A-Day draws near.

1. Can Daniel Carlson take his game to an even higher level?

Looking at the numbers — and considering he was one of three finalists for the 2015 Lou Groza Award — it’s hard to imagine there’s much higher for junior Daniel Carlson to climb.

D. Carlson — Field Goals
2013Redshirt Season

Related to Carlson’s 2015 field goal excellence was a noticeable improvement from the prior season on longer-range kicks. In 2014, he was 5-for-10 from 40+ yards. Last year, he improved to 8-for-10 from that distance, including 4-for-5 from 50 or more yards out.

In addition, Carlson increased his already-impressive touchback percentage, an under-appreciated weapon, from 61.7 to 71.0 percent.

He is also a perfect 97-for-97 on points after touchdowns in his career.

It won’t be easy for Carlson to improve on his 2015 numbers, but if he does — and maybe even if he doesn’t — he will no longer be merely a finalist where the Groza is concerned.

2. Will anyone challenge Marcus Davis at punt returner?

Auburn only has one player on their roster who has ever returned a punt for them, and he is the definite favorite to claim the job for the 2016 season.

When Quan Bray, who returned two punts for touchdowns in 2014, graduated, Marcus Davis took over the position full-time and, due to his sure hands, never let it go.

M. Davis — Punt Returns

But now that Davis has the reliability, special teams coordinator Scott Fountain would like to see the big play.

“We want an explosive guy back there. And we want Marcus to be aggressive with the ball,” he recently said.

Among the players who have received reps at punt returner are junior safety Stephen Roberts and two other Davises — sophomore receiver Ryan and freshman cornerback Javaris.

Fountain claims that Roberts and Ryan Davis “are very much in” it.

3. Can Kevin Phillips hold off Ian Shannon yet again at punter?

Last season it was somewhat surprising when Kevin Phillips transferred in from Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College as a walk-on and proceeded to beat out Auburn signee Ian Shannon, the No. 3 ranked high school punter in the country by 247Sports — but that’s exactly what he did.

Phillips took the reins from Auburn’s 2014 punter, Daniel Carlson, so that he could focus more on his field goal and kickoff responsibilities, the result of which was Carlson being named a 2015 Lou Groza Award finalist.

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And Auburn didn’t even miss Carlson at punter because Phillips — posting a 41.0 yard average and placing 30.9 percent of his punts inside the 20 — would essentially replicate Carlson’s 2014 marks (42.0, 31.7).

But he now finds himself in another race.

A walk on no more — Auburn rewarded Phillips for his 2015 efforts with a scholarship — he must hold off Shannon once again.

Shannon, who redshirted in 2015, is said to be much improved.

Still, Fountain knows what he’ll get in Phillips, and that may be too much for Shannon to overcome.

4. Will Auburn’s kickoff returners become game-changers?

Auburn has three players returning who have returned kickoffs as Tigers.

Johnathan ‘Rudy’ Ford and Kerryon Johnson were the primary kickoff returners for the Tigers last season, and both averaged terrific gains per return (see chart).

Kickoff Returns — Career
J. Ford1627.958
K. Johnson1427.645
R. Thomas314.321

Just like on punt returns, however, true, game-changing, explosive plays were missing — no kicks were returned for touchdowns.

Roc Thomas is the only other Tiger with kickoff return experience, but all three of his returns came in 2014. With Johnson out of spring practice as he recovers from shoulder surgery, Thomas has been receiving a bulk of the reps with Ford.

Jason Smith has also been working the position, and fall practice may see true freshman Kyle Davis get more involved.

Auburn’s special teams unit was outstanding on kickoff returns last year. The next level can only be reached by housing a few.

The talent is there to do just that.

The execution must follow.

5. Is there a kick coverage ‘enforcer’ on the roster?

It’s been a few years since Craig Sanders and Demetruce McNeal were regularly and memorably – and sometimes even simultaneously – flattening those who dared return an Auburn kickoff.

Auburn fans who saw the hits Sanders and McNeal dished out no doubt yearn for that type of special teams demolition to return to the regularly scheduled programming at Jordan-Hare Stadium.

It’s not known who exactly will make up the coverage units — neither on kickoffs nor punt returns — but, if given the opportunity, Jeff Holland certainly has the makeup, mindset, and ability to turn back the clock.

And maybe turn out some lights.