SEC special team players who could have a big impact on division races in 2017
Special teams belong to a select group of things in life that are largely ignored until they become part of a problem. Like toilet paper, batteries or a spare tube of toothpaste, special teams aren’t particularly important to a college football fan until, well, they are.
While offensive and defensive depth charts are dissected and debated relentlessly, some SEC programs don’t even carry scholarship kickers or punters. In the grand scheme of things, it may seem wise to use an extra scholarship on a running back or defensive lineman, but when a last-second field goal is needed to win or tie the game, should a walk-on really be the best option?
Including bowl games, SEC teams played in 18 contests that were decided by a field goal or less. Across the league, scholarship kickers made 77 percent of their attempts while non-scholarship kickers converted 69 percent.
Kickers are just one aspect of special teams, however. Although they receive the most attention, everyone from the long snapper to the gunner on punt coverage plays a crucial role.
We’ve covered the SEC’s freshmen and seniors who are most likely to impact the division races, so now it’s time to give some attention to the unsung heroes. Here are the special teams players most likely to be key factors:
Daniel Carlson – K, Auburn
One of the best kickers in the SEC, Carlson is a major weapon for the Tigers. The senior chose to forgo the NFL Draft and return to Auburn, which could be enough to put the program over the top in 2017. While his ability to generate points was arguably more important in previous seasons, when Auburn didn’t have this type of projected talent on offense, he could be used more often this fall.
If Jarrett Stidham takes the Tigers’ offense to the next level like many expect, then Auburn could be in scoring position a lot. When it isn’t able to punch the ball into the end zone, Carlson will be expected to do the rest.
JK Scott – P/K, Alabama
Like Carlson, Scott has already proven himself to have one of the conference’s best legs. Few punters are able to flip the field the way Scott can, and he’s at his best in Alabama’s biggest games. It’s possible, however, that Scott takes on a bigger role in 2017. With kicker Adam Griffith gone from the program, Alabama is looking at new placekicking options.
Senior Andy Pappanastos is the only incumbent kicker on the roster, but true freshman Joseph Bulovas is expected to compete for the job when he joins the team in the fall. If neither Pappanastos or Bulovas has the confidence of the coaching staff, Scott is expected to handle some of the kicking duties. When it does lose a game, Alabama rarely does so by a large margin, meaning it could come down to a field goal.
Dre Massey – KR, Florida
There was a pervasive excitement among Florida fans last season about Massey, an incoming wide receiver transfer. An electric player, Massey was a threat every time he touched the ball.
Massey was expected to enhance the Gators’ receiver corps and make an impact in the return game. Unfortunately, he tore his ACL on the opening kickoff of Florida’s first game. Fully healthy, Massey is back to add a spark to a return unit that could use one.
Mecole Hardman – KR, Georgia
Although Isaiah McKenzie’s absence will impact Georgia’s passing game, it’s his abilities as a record-setting returner that will be missed the most. The Bulldogs will have to find new bodies on both kickoff and punt returns, and Hardman is one player who has many fans excited.
— UGA Football Live (@UGAfootballLive) May 19, 2016
The No. 1 athlete prospect in the Class of 2016, Hardman is an agile player with great speed. He should be the main option on kickoff returns and could handle punt returns if Georgia decides Terry Godwin is too valuable to use in that capacity. It will be hard to replace McKenzie, but Hardman should provide an upgrade on kickoff returns and could, at the very least, mitigate the loss of “The Human Joystick.”
Grant McKinniss – P, Kentucky
If Kentucky is truly going to make a dark horse run at the SEC East title, it will need consistent play in all facets of the game. As a freshman, McKinniss ranked last among qualified SEC punters in distance per kick with 39.2 yards, and only 10 of his 58 punts landed inside the 20-yard line. The Wildcats are bringing in former Columbia University punter Matthew Panton to provide competition for McKinniss this season. Panton is considered more of a directional punter than a big boomer, however, and averaged just 40.5 yards in 2016, barely better than McKinniss.
Kentucky may choose to stick with McKinniss as its primary option as he has more long-term potential. Whoever gets the nod, though, Kentucky will need to be better at flipping the field if it is serious about winning the division.
Donte Jackson – KR, LSU
Considered by many to be the fastest player in college football, Jackson’s speed has yet to be fully utilized by LSU on special teams. Jackson returned seven kickoffs in 2016 and averaged 23.43 yards. While Derrius Guice was exceptional returning kicks last season, his importance to the Tigers’ offense will likely preclude him from occupying that role this fall.
Jackson is more than capable of returning kicks and replacing Tre’Davious White as the team’s punt returner. He’s not the only candidate for those roles, however, as LSU is also looking at receivers Drake Davis and D.J. Chark to fill that void. If the Tigers do employ the fastest player in college football, however, their offense will likely enjoy great field position more often than not.