SEC position rankings: Special teams
Team Position Rankings:
- Running backs
- Wide receivers/tight ends
- Offensive line
- Defensive line
- Defensive backs
- Special teams
In the National Football League, you don’t see a team’s best players on special teams. You just can’t risk those big-money guys there. And the most violent collisions occur on kick and punt returns; there’s a reason the NFL moved kickoffs up and that you rarely see returns these days.
But college football is different. Coaches aren’t afraid to use their best players as a punt or kickoff returner. Hey, it’s the coaches who get the big money. The players get nothing. Coaches only have to answer to themselves and win, not a general manager or owner who doesn’t want a star risking injury on a punt return.
That said, here’s my ranking of the top special teams units in the SEC for the coming season.
Dawgs kicker Marshall Morgan was named the preseason All-SEC first-team kicker. In a game against South Carolina last season, Morgan set an SEC record by hitting his 20th straight field goal dating to the 2013 campaign. Overall in 2014, he made 16 of 21 field goals, with a long of 53 yards against Charleston Southern. He also set a school record with 67 PATs. Morgan’s 115 total points led the conference. Somehow, return man Isaiah McKenzie wasn’t a preseason All-SEC pick. That’s baffling. All McKenzie did last year was tie the school single-season record with two punt returns for scores and three total return TDs. In a win over Kentucky, McKenzie became the first player in Georgia history and the 12th in FBS history to return a kickoff and a punt for a touchdown in the same game. Punter Collin Barber is just OK.
2. Texas A&M
The Aggies have the preseason first-team All-SEC return specialist in receiver Speedy Noil, and he’s also third-team all-purpose. Aggies punter Drew Kaser is second team. Last year as a freshman, Noil had 645 yards on 27 kickoff returns (23.8 average), with a long return of 70 against Missouri. He added 180 yards on 15 punt returns (12.0 average), with a long of 67 yards against Lamar. Also in that Lamar game, Noil became the first player in school history to log a 40-yard+ catch, a 50-yard+ kickoff return and a 60-yard+ punt return in the same game. Kaser ranked No. 15 nationally and fifth in the SEC last year with a 44.1 average on 62 punts. His 22 “coffin corner” punts broke Shane Lechler’s record of 21 in 1998. Taylor Bertolet takes over at kicker. He was the primary guy as a freshman in 2012 and had 106 points. He didn’t kick at all last season as he was behind Josh Lambo.
I could have made an argument to swap the Tigers and Aggies. There’s no question the most exciting player in the SEC is LSU running back Leonard Fournette, a top Heisman candidate. He’s not just a preseason first-team All-SEC running back but second-team all-purpose and third-team return specialist. Fournette returned 25 kickoffs for 625 yards, including a 100-yarder in the Music City Bowl loss to Notre Dame. Tre’Davious White averaged 10.9 yards per punt return and had a touchdown. Jamie Keehn averaged 44.9 yards per punt and downed 27 inside the 20. Kicker Colby Delahoussaye made 11 of 15 last year.
ON THE CUSP
This might be the only top 5 ranking for Vandy on any of these position rankings here at the site. Darrius Sims was one of the best kick returners in the conference last year, averaging 24.5 yards on 31 returns. He had probably the best special teams game in school history vs. South Carolina, becoming first player in SEC history to return two kicks for touchdowns in the same game (91 & 100 yards). Colby Cooke averaged 42.7 yards per punt and downed 19 kicks inside the 20. Tommy Openshaw hit eight of 11 field goals.
5. South Carolina
The Gamecocks’ Pharoh Cooper is the top returning receiver in the SEC and also was named second-team preseason All-SEC as a return specialist and first team all-purpose. He was ninth in the SEC last season in all-purpose yards per game at (108.5). He returned 15 punts for 75 yards. Shon Carson will handle kickoffs; he returned 32 for 633 yards in 2014. Kicker Elliott Fry was named preseason All-SEC second team. He hit 18 of 25 field goals last year.
The preseason first-team All-SEC punter is the Tide’s JK Scott, and the voting wasn’t close. Nor should it have been. Scott led the nation in punt average at 48.0 yards per game and hit 31 punts inside the 20 with 23 kicks of at least 50 yards. Alabama is going to have good field position often this season. Top return man Christion Jones is gone, but the Tide just throw another five-star recruit there in Cyrus Jones. Adam Griffith was 12-for-19 on field goals in 2014.
Evan Berry had 14 kickoff returns for 413 yards last year, so he’s clearly a big-play guy. His first return went for 68 yards against Chattanooga, the longest for UT since Cordarelle Patterson’s 98-yarder vs. Mississippi State on Oct. 13, 2012. Aaron Medley was 20-for-26 on field goals but did struggle some at 40-yards plus. Star cornerback Cameron Sutton will return punts. He had 14 returns for 158 yards with a 76-yarder for a touchdown.
THE REST …
Stanley “Boom” Williams was a Freshman All-American as a kick returner in 2014, averaging 26.9 yards per return with a long of 75. Kicker Austin MacGinnis was named to the preseason All-SEC third team. He hit 21 of 27 field goals and all 41 extra points last year.
It’s always nice to have one guy handle kicking and punting, and the Tigers had that last year in Daniel Carson. He hit 18 of 24 field goals and averaged 42 yards per punt. The team is relieving him of punting duties this year.
The Gators bring back Austin Hardin, the former top kicking recruit in the country from the 2013 class. He took over starting duties late last season and was 7-for-10, including a winner vs. Tennessee.
12. Ole Miss
Jaylen Walton holds the school record with 1,542 career kick-return yards.
Keon Hatcher averaged 23.2 yards per kick return (albeit only six of them) in 2014 and D.J. Dean returned 11 punts for 121 yards.
13. Mississippi State
The Bulldogs bring back Devon Bell, who averaged 43.2 yards per punt.
Tigers lost maybe SEC’s best returner last year in Marcus Murphy. Andrew Baggett is back and made 18 of 25 field goals in 2014.