Special Teams Index: Which school had the SEC's best special teams in 2014?
Special teams often go under-appreciated, but they can affect a game in a number of ways. As a result, Saturday Down South is giving the SECs special teamers the credit they deserve in the weekly Special Teams Index.
There wasn’t much separating the SEC’s best kickoff return units in 2014, as the top four teams in the conference all closed the year with return averages within 1.4 yards of one another. Arkansas led the way with an average of 25.3 yards per return, but Missouri was 0.2 yards behind and Tennessee was just 0.6 yards behind.
Eleven of the SEC’s 14 teams finished with an average of at least 20 yards per return, and only South Carolina failed to reach at least 19 yards per return by season’s end.
As far as touchdowns are concerned, there was little correlation between productive return units and high touchdown totals in 2014. Of the eight kickoff return touchdowns in the SEC this season, only three came from teams ranked among the top six in kickoff return average. Three more came from teams ranked ninth or worse in return average in 2014.
As far as covering kickoffs was concerned, no one in the SEC was better than the Mississippi State Bulldogs, who held opponents to just 17.9 yards per return this season. Four teams in the SEC held opponents to fewer than 20 yards per return while all 14 teams in the conference held opponents to fewer than 24 yards per return.
It’s worth noting a touchback would place the ball at the 25 yard line, making the SEC’s kickoff coverage numbers look all the more impressive.
In this case there was indeed a correlation between the best kickoff coverage units and the number of return touchdowns allowed this season. The 14 SEC teams allowed a combined seven return touchdowns this year, all of which were allowed by teams ranked eighth or worse in the conference in kickoff coverage.
Here’s a complete rundown of every SEC team’s numbers on kickoff returns and in kickoff coverage this season:
|Team||Kickoff Returns||Yards per Return||Return TDs|
|5. Texas A&M||44||22.9||0|
|T9. Mississippi State||24||20.3||1|
|13. Ole Miss||26||19.3||0|
|14. South Carolina||37||18.8||0|
|Team||Opp. Returns||Yards per Return Allowed||Return TDs Allowed|
|1. Mississippi State||56||17.9||0|
|2. Texas A&M||30||18.2||0|
|T5. Ole Miss||41||20.2||0|
|12. South Carolina||30||23.0||2|
There was a much wider range of success throughout the SEC when it came to the conference’s punt return units. Auburn led the conference with an average of 17.8 yards per return, thanks to two long return touchdowns by Quan Bray early in the season that padded the Tigers’ numbers in the return game for much of the year.
Seven of the 14 SEC teams averaged at least 10 yards per return, and those seven teams ran back a combined seven punts for touchdowns this season. Seven more teams mustered fewer than 10 yards per return and combined to return just one punt for a touchdown.
As far as punt coverage is concerned, Arkansas and Tennessee boasted the best coverage units in the SEC, allowing just three yards per return on the season. Ole Miss and Georgia joined the Hogs and the Vols as the only teams in the conference to allow fewer than five yards per return.
Kentucky had the worst punt coverage unit in the SEC in allowing more than 12 yards per punt return this season. The Wildcats ranked 115th out of 128 FBS teams in punt coverage in 2014. LSU was the only other team in the SEC to allow more than 10 yards per return this season.
SEC teams allowed just five punt return touchdowns all year, four of which were allowed by the conference’s three worst coverage units — Kentucky (2), LSU and Florida. The fifth was allowed by South Carolina, which actually ranked fifth in the conference in punt coverage at season’s end.
Here’s a full rundown of every SEC team’s numbers on punt returns and in punt coverage this season:
|Team||Punt Returns||Yards per Return||Return TDs|
|T2. Texas A&M||21||13.0||0|
|12. Ole Miss||22||6.4||0|
|13. South Carolina||19||5.4||0|
|14. Mississippi State||23||4.3||0|
|Team||Opp. Returns||Yards per Return Allowed||Return TDs Allowed|
|3. Ole Miss||17||3.5||0|
|5. South Carolina||13||6.9||1|
|6. Mississippi State||14||7.2||0|
|10. Texas A&M||12||8.3||0|
Evan Berry closed the year with the best kickoff return average in the SEC at better than 29 yards per kickoff return, but he also had fewer return opportunities than any other player ranked in the top 5 in the conference this season. Seven players averaged at least 24 yards per return and 11 averaged at least 20 yards per return in 2014.
The only player among those 11 with a return touchdown in 2014 is Vanderbilt’s Darrius Sims, who ran back two kickoffs for touchdowns on the year. He also had more return opportunities than anyone else in the conference with 31 returns in 12 games.
Bray’s two touchdowns allowed him to lead the SEC in punt return average with four more yards per return than any other player in the conference. Georgia’s Isaiah McKenzie was the only other player in the conference to return multiple punts for touchdowns, and he closed the year ranked fourth in the SEC in punt return average.
Florida’s Andre Debose proved himself to be the SEC’s best all-around returner in 2014, finishing the year as the only player ranked in the top 5 in the conference in both kickoff and punt return average.
Here’s a full rundown of the SEC’s best individual kickoff and punt returners this season:
|Name||Team||Kickoff Returns||Yards per Return||Touchdowns|
|1. Evan Berry||Tennessee||14||29.5||0|
|2. Boom Williams||Kentucky||19||26.9||0|
|3. Andre Debose||Florida||21||24.7||0|
|4. Christion Jones||Alabama||27||24.6||0|
|5. Darrius Sims||Vanderbilt||31||24.5||2|
|Name||Team||Punt Returns||Yards per Return||Touchdowns|
|1. Quan Bray||Auburn||15||18.1||2|
|2. Andre Debose||Florida||23||14.0||1|
|3. Speedy Noil||Texas A&M||14||12.7||0|
|4. Isaiah McKenzie||Georgia||19||12.1||2|
|5. Marcus Murphy||Missouri||24||11.4||1|
Florida’s Francisco Velez and Texas A&M’s Josh Lambo tied as the most accurate kickers in the SEC after both made 12 of 14 field goal attempts on the season. Four SEC kickers made at least 80 percent of their attempts, and 10 kickers with at least 10 attempts made at least 70 percent of their kicks in 2014.
Mississippi State’s Evan Sobiesk rose to No. 3 in field goal accuracy at season’s end, but he also missed three extra points in 2014. He entered last week’s Egg Bowl having made 9 of 10 kicks on the year, but suffered a crucial miss in the loss to Ole Miss.
Alabama freshman JK Scott closed the year as the SEC’s best punter, averaging more than 47 yards per punt in 2014. No punter in the SEC had as big an impact on field position as Scott, although 11 SEC punters averaged at least 40 yards per punt this season.
Florida and Texas A&M closed the year with the best collection of specialists, as the Gators and Aggies were the only two teams in the conference with one of the SEC’s five most accurate kickers as well as one of its five best distance punters. Florida’s Kyle Christy and A&M’s Drew Kaser each averaged 44.5 yards per punt this season, tying for third in the conference.
Here’s a complete rundown of the SEC’s best place kickers and punters this season:
|Name||Team||Field Goals Made||Field Goals Attempted||Percentage|
|T1. Francisco Velez||Florida||12||14||85.7|
|T1. Josh Lambo||Texas A&M||12||14||85.7|
|3. Evan Sobiesk||Mississippi State||10||12||83.3|
|4. Daniel Carlson||Auburn||17||21||81.0|
|5, Austin MacGinnis||Kentucky||21||27||77.8|
|Name||Team||Punts||Yards Per Punt|
|1. JK Scott||Alabama||45||47.2|
|2. Jamie Keehn||LSU||68||45.0|
|T3. Drew Kaser||Texas A&M||56||44.5|
|T3. Kyle Christy||Florida||56||44.5|
|5. Will Gleeson||Ole Miss||49||43.0|
BONUS TRICK PLAY CATEGORY
The Georgia Bulldogs lost their regular season finale to arch-rival Georgia Tech on Saturday, but they did execute the special teams play of the day with a fake field goal in the fourth quarter of the loss.
The Dawgs passed on a 48-yard try early in the final quarter and instead elected to run the fake, which involved an over-the-head lateral to kicker Marshall Morgan, who went streaking down the right sideline for a gain of 28 yards before being pulled down at the 2 yard line. Take a look at the play here:
Georgia was unable to punch the ball into the end zone following the fake and was forced to settle for a much shorter field goal when all was said and done.