Better/Worse in 2016: Ole Miss special teams
Ole Miss was fourth in the SEC last season in rushing defense. It wasn’t a rush to get the ball on special teams though.
The Rebels found themselves in the middle of the pack on special teams, last in punt return yardage, next to last in kick return yardage, seventh in punting average and sixth in field goal percentage.
There will be some new faces handling returns, but familiar feet are back to handle kicking and punting. Early tests against Florida State, Georgia and Alabama will serve as some indicators for the fate of 2016’s special teams. And any of the three could come down to a field goal, points that will likely loom larger as the season rolls on.
Punting average: 41.7 (7th in SEC)
Kickoff return average: 17.7 (13th)
Kickoff return TDs: 0
Punt return avg.: 3.6 (last)
Punt return TDs: 0
Kickoff/punt return TDs allowed: 0
It would be unfair to continue to relate kicker Gary Wunderlich only to the mini-brawl that broke out in the Memphis game two years ago. In fact, last season Wunderlich was pretty good. Ole Miss ranked sixth in the SEC on his 76 percent average.
Of his six field goals missed on the season, two apiece came from 20-29, 30-39 and 40-49. But he was also 3-for-5 from 40-49. Wunderlich hit his first six attempts before missing back-to-back 29-yarders, the latter in what became a laugher of a loss at Florida. Take away the two 30-plus yarders missed in the Egg Bowl and his stat line is even better. His struggles were late, three missed in the final two games, two in the Egg Bowl and the last in the Sugar Bowl.
Senior kickoff specialist Nathan Noble handled 94 of the team’s 95 kickoffs last season. He sent 54 of them into the end zone for touchbacks.
Australian Will Gleeson punted 43 of Ole Miss’ 52 punts – Wunderlich had the other nine. As a sophomore, he averaged 40.7 yards per punt with a long of 62, a touchback, 15 fair catches, 11 inside the 20 and five punts of 50 yards or more.
His backup in Wunderlich showed a bigger boot, his nine punts averaging 46.9 yards, helped by a 73-yarder. Arkansas was the only team to punt fewer times, the Razorbacks with 44.
Carlos Davis returned 13 punts last season for 5.8 yards per return. He may be behind DB Tony Bridges. Bridges did not have any punt returns last season but was a specialist in junior college where he returned 16 for a 14.6-yard average.
Kick returner will be new. Jaylen Walton returned 27 of the 34 kickoffs and averaged 18.3 yards per return. Running back Jordan Wilkins could become the go-to guy for kickoffs.
Ole Miss didn’t do well returning punts, but the Rebels did better than fine defending punt returns. They were second in the SEC, allowing only 5.9 yards per return. Only Florida’s 3.9 was better. To put it in perspective, the 18 returned punts against Ole Miss was the fifth-lowest total in the league.
Things weren’t bad on kick returns either. Ole Miss ranked seventh in the SEC, allowing 19.1 yards per return. That was less than a yard behind SEC-leading Mississippi State (18.2).
Nine points on three field goals that didn’t look like too big of a deal at Alabama turned out to be huge.
Wunderlich connected on field goals of 32, 34 and 45 in Tuscaloosa. The 45-yarder came with less than four minutes to play in the third quarter and put the Rebels up a dominating 30-10.
Wunderlich didn’t attempt a field goal in the fourth quarter, and none of his makes were celebrated like they were game-winning kicks. But after Alabama stormed back and cut the lead to 43-37 with less than five minutes to go and had the ball in the final minute, those nine points played a huge role in setting the tone of a season that ended with a blowout of Oklahoma State in the Sugar Bowl.
ONE STAT THAT MUST CHANGE
Finding a punt returner – and making room for him – is a must. The best teams in the SEC can’t be seen hanging around the bottom of stat rankings, especially not last. South Carolina averaged 4.58 yards per punt return. That was bad. Ole Miss’ was about a yard less.
Ole Miss was one of six teams that averaged less than 10 yards per return. It averaged 16 fewer yards per return than SEC-leading Texas A&M.
BETTER/WORSE IN 2016?
The Rebels will be better. They didn’t lose any major pieces. Wunderlich should be expected to improve on longer kicks and Wilkins, or someone, will need to greatly improve return numbers. Between Gleeson and Wunderlich, the punting will be fine and the coverage teams should keep pace, assuming a new headhunter replaces the missile that was Channing Ward blasting through blockers.