LSU Tigers: Cody Parkey

Today, our SEC position-by-position rankings move to an area that will see plenty of turnover throughout the league: special teams.

There are a ton of SEC heavyweights who lost key special teamers, like league champ Auburn -- which lost punter Steven Clark, kicker Cody Parkey, now-legendary return man Chris Davis and kickoff returner/tailback Tre Mason -- LSU (All-American Odell Beckham) and Alabama (punter Cody Mandell and kicker Cade Foster). That’s just a start.

The league is full of dynamic playmakers who can become stars in the return game, but as of right now, many SEC teams have questions to answer on special teams. That’s why teams that have returning veterans at those positions sit high in our rankings.

Special teams position rankings

1. Texas A&M: There aren’t many SEC teams that can make this claim, but the Aggies have a clean sweep of returning specialists. Leading the way is an All-American and Ruy Guy Award finalist at punter, Drew Kaser, who broke the school record with a 47.4-yard average last season. Texas A&M also has kicker Josh Lambo (8-for-10 on field goals in 2013), kickoff returner Trey Williams (25.2 yards per return, fifth in the SEC) and punt returner De’Vante Harris (6.7 yards per return, sixth in the SEC) back this fall. That’s a solid collection of talent that should help an Aggies team that certainly has some questions to answer on offense and defense.

2. Missouri: This is another squad that returns the key figures from a season ago, led by versatile return man Marcus Murphy. Murphy was fifth in the SEC in punt returns (7.0) and 11th in kickoff returns (22.2) while also contributing to the Tigers’ solid running game. Andrew Baggett (18-for-25 on field goals, 8.6 points per game) was the SEC’s second-leading scorer among kickers, and he returns along with punter Christian Brinser (41.0 yards per punt).

3. Georgia: Truth be told, Georgia was frequently terrible on special teams last season. The Bulldogs struggled to generate much of anything in the return game and experienced some issues with blocked punts. Coach Mark Richt changed the way the coaching staff will address special teams during the offseason, and perhaps that will make a difference. The individual specialists are actually pretty good -- particularly kicker Marshall Morgan, who should generate some All-America attention himself. Morgan was 22-for-24 (91.7 percent) and led all SEC kickers with an average of 10.3 points per game, truly one of the best seasons by a kicker in school history. Punters Collin Barber and Adam Erickson were mostly average, which is more than can be said for the Bulldogs’ return men. Keep an eye on freshman Isaiah McKenzie in August to see if he has a chance to contribute in the return game.

4. LSU: The return game will certainly suffer a blow without electric All-American Beckham -- the winner of last season’s Paul Hornung Award as the nation’s most versatile player -- but LSU has no shortage of athletic players (running back Terrence Magee is one option) whom the coaches can plug into Beckham’s old spots. The Tigers are solid at kicker with Colby Delahoussaye, who led the SEC by making 92.9 percent of his field goals (13 of 14). They held a competition for the punting job during the spring between hot-and-cold Jamie Keehn (41.0 ypp) and walk-on Trent Domingue.

5. South Carolina: Here’s another one where experience helps, although the Gamecocks have much to improve upon this season. Punter Tyler Hull (37.8 ypp) is back, but South Carolina ranked last in the SEC with an average of 34.1 net yards per punt. They were mediocre both returning and covering kickoffs and at returning punts, although Pharoh Cooper (22.4 ypr on kickoffs and 4.4 ypr on punts) might be a breakout candidate for the Gamecocks this fall. Elliott Fry was a solid performer (15-for-18 on field goals, fourth in the SEC with 7.6 ppg) at place-kicker in 2013.

6. Alabama: The Crimson Tide should rank higher on this list by season’s end. After all, they have arguably the SEC’s top return man in Christion Jones (second in the league with 28.7 ypr on kickoffs and second with 14.0 ypr on punts). But they also lost a dynamic punter in Mandell and a place-kicker, Foster, who was solid last season before melting down in the Iron Bowl. Perhaps Adam Griffith (1-for-3 on field goals) will take over the kicking job, but Alabama also has high hopes for signee J.K. Scott, who is capable of kicking or punting in college.

7. Arkansas: The rankings start getting murky around the middle of the pack. Arkansas has a phenomenal punter back in ambidextrous Australian Sam Irwin-Hill (44.3 ypp, fifth in the SEC), but the Razorbacks also lost kicker Zach Hocker (13-for-15 on field goals) and punt returner Javontee Herndon. Kickoff returner Korliss Marshall (22.2 ypr, 10th in the SEC) is back. It would be huge for Arkansas if signee Cole Hedlund, USA Today’s first-team All-USA kicker for the Class of 2014, can come in and take over Hocker’s job.

8. Florida: We’re speculating here that Andre Debose comes back healthy and reclaims his job as the Gators’ kickoff return man. That would be a big deal since Debose is tied for the SEC’s career lead with four kickoff returns for touchdowns. Now-departed Solomon Patton did a great job in his place last season, averaging 29.2 ypr. The Gators also lost punt returner Marcus Roberson (9.2 ypr). The big issue, though, is at kicker, where former top kicking prospect Austin Hardin (4-for-12 on field goals) was awful last season and eventually gave way to Francisco Velez (6-for-8). Likewise, Johnny Townsend (42.0 ypp) took over at punter for former Groza finalist Kyle Christy (39.6) because of a slump, although both are back.

9. Kentucky: Although the Wildcats lost a solid kicker in Joe Mansour (12-for-14 on field goals), they still have several solid players returning. They include punt returner Demarco Robinson (10.4 ypr), kickoff returner Javess Blue (20.4 ypr) and punter Landon Foster (41.3 ypp). Austin MacGinnis, one of the nation’s better kicking prospects in 2013, claimed the place-kicking job during spring practice.

10. Auburn: As with Alabama, we expect Auburn to move up this list during the season. They have the No. 1 kicking prospect from 2013, redshirt freshman Daniel Carlson, taking over for Parkey at place-kicker. They have speedster Corey Grant as an option at kickoff return. And they have another talented redshirt freshman, Jimmy Hutchinson, inheriting the reliable Clark’s spot at punter. Quan Bray might be the man who takes over at punt returner for Davis, who averaged 18.7 ypr (which doesn’t include his 109-yard field goal return to beat Alabama), but he could face a challenge from candidates like Trovon Reed, Marcus Davis or Johnathan Ford.

11. Tennessee: Considering how the Volunteers lost punter/kicker Michael Palardy (third in SEC with 44.5 yards per punt and 14-for-17 on field goals), it’s a good thing that they signed top kicking prospect and Under Armour All-American Aaron Medley. Tennessee has return man Devrin Young (25.9 ypr on kickoffs and 7.9 on punts) and backup punt return man Jacob Carter (9.3 ypr) back, as well.

12. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs return most everyone from last season (minus punter Baker Swedenburg, who averaged 42.5 ypp), but it remains to be determined whether that’s a good thing. They were mediocre or worse in most special teams departments in 2013 – especially at place-kicker, where Devon Bell (6-for-14 on field goals) and Evan Sobiesk (3-for-6) were hardly reliable. Bell (41.2 ypp) was a decent punter, but could face a challenge from signee Logan Cooke on kickoffs and punts. Return man Jameon Lewis (23.5 ypr on kickoffs and 2.3 on punts) is back, as is speedster Brandon Holloway (37.7 ypr on three kickoffs and 18.0 ypr on two punts), who is trying to crack the starting lineup at running back, but could become a dynamic return man if given the opportunity.

13. Ole Miss: By losing punter Tyler Campbell (44.4 ypp, fourth in the SEC), kicker Andrew Ritter (16-for-24 on field goals) and punt returner Jeff Scott (12.7 ypr), Ole Miss has plenty of holes to fill. They have kickoff returner Jaylen Walton (20.6 ypr) back and also signed the No. 2 kicking prospect for 2014, Gary Wunderlich, who is capable of becoming a standout performer as both a kicker and punter.

14. Vanderbilt: New coach Derek Mason didn’t seem particularly enthused about his special teams units after spring practice. The Commodores lost kicker Carey Spear (15-for-19 on field goals) and potential replacement Tommy Openshaw struggled during spring scrimmages, potentially opening the door for a walk-on. Punter Taylor Hudson (42.9 ypp, seventh in the SEC) is back, but he and competitor Colby Cooke were apparently not very consistent this spring, either. Vandy lost punt returner Jonathan Krause (3.6 ypr) and returns leading kickoff return man Darrius Sims (22.8 ypr, eighth in the SEC).

Halftime analysis: Auburn 10, LSU 9

September, 22, 2012
9/22/12
8:46
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AUBURN, Ala. --LSU had Auburn on the ropes early on its own field, then Corey Lemonier showed why you always have a chance when you have a big-time pass-rusher against a young quarterback.

The Auburn defensive end stripped Zach Mettenberger on a sack at the LSU 26 yard-line and Angelo Blackson recovered it, setting up a touchdown that cut what had been a dominating early, 9-point LSU lead to a 2-point game game. It was the second of two turnovers by Mettenberger in his first road and SEC start.

The game stayed close the rest of the first half, with Auburn taking a 10-9 halftime lead on Cody Parkey's 40-yard field goal with 1:21 left in the half.

Stat of the half: 182-88. LSU's total yardage advantage, which was offset by Mettenberger's two redzone turnovers.

The LSU quarterback was otherwise effective, completing 10-of-13 passes for 78 yards, but he felt Auburn's pressure and turned the ball over.

Player of the half: Lemonier, whose sack changed the game, spearheaded AU's effort to stay close to LSU. It offset a solid 70-yard rushing half for LSU's Spencer Ware.

What's working for LSU: LSU's defense allowed four first downs and just 90 yards in the first half, killing Auburn's efforts to get to the edge with Onterio McCalebb with penetration. Sam Montgomery had a tackle in the end zone of Tre Mason of Auburn for a safety.

What's not working for LSU: Mettenberger, with his two fumbles in his first SEC start, allowed Auburn to get off the hook, possibly for 14 points. His fumbled snap at the Auburn 3 yard-line in the first quarter, recovered by Auburn Jeffrey Whitaker, might have negated an eventual LSU touchdown and his second fumble set up an Auburn touchdown.

Will LSU train rumble through Auburn?

September, 21, 2012
9/21/12
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- It's a series that has brought us earthquakes (during LSU's 1988 win in Baton Rouge), fires (in 1996, when the old Auburn Sports Arena burned down outside Jordan-Hare Stadium) and hurricanes (in 2004, when Hurricane Ivan brushed by Auburn).

There have been plenty of strange happenings around the Auburn-LSU series, which will be renewed Saturday when No. 2 LSU (3-0) visits Jordan-Hare to face AU (1-2), but perhaps none more strange for LSU than the story of Cecil "The Diesel" Collins.

To those who follow LSU closely, Collins is one of the great talents ever to play running back at LSU, but he played a mere four games for the Tigers. In his only season, he was suspended for the 1997 opener for violating team rules, then piled up 596 yards in four games before being lost for the season to a broken leg.

His highlight game was 15 years ago Thursday, when he piled up 232 rushing yards against an Auburn team that eventually won the SEC West, in no small part because it escaped Baton Rouge with a 31-28 win on Collins' big night. But so good was Collins, there was talk that he would become a front-runner for the Heisman Trophy the next season.

Instead, in June 1998, he was arrested for unauthorized entry into an inhabited dwelling and assault (reduced from sexual assault) in a Baton Rouge apartment, an incident he blamed on sleepwalking. He was kicked off LSU's team, resurfaced at McNeese State, and washed up after two unspectacular games for failing a drug test.

He briefly went to jail (the failed drug test was a violation of his bond for the original charges), got a shot with the Miami Dolphins in 1999, had a decent rookie season, then broke into another apartment in 1999 in Miami, for which he was sentenced to 15 years in prison. The incident, he said, occurred because he wanted to watch a woman sleep.

A strange story, indeed. Perhaps every bit as strange as arenas burning down outside a stadium or touchdown celebrations that register as earthquakes (that was on Eddie Fuller's game-winning touchdown catch in LSU's 7-6 win in 1988).

Will another strange chapter be written Saturday?

Three Things to Watch:

1. Running like a Diesel?: Every week, AU's defense must feel like the 1997 defense trying to stop Collins. Auburn is last in the SEC in rush defense, allowing 217 yards a game. LSU leads the SEC in rushing (269.3 ypg). Even with LSU missing injured starting RB Alfred Blue, Auburn has its hands full.

2. Youth is served: LSU first-year starting quarterback Zach Mettenberger will get his first road start and first SEC start Saturday. His counterpart, Kiehl Frazier, is also a first-year starter who has struggled (two touchdowns, five interceptions).

3. Still Badgering: Even without Tyrann Mathieu, LSU leads the SEC in total defense (205 yards per game), bettering even the impressive numbers of Alabama (210 ypg). Can Frazier and Auburn make a dent?

LSU Tigers to Watch

1. RB Kenny Hilliard: The most likely choice to replace Blue as the starter, he leads LSU and is third in the SEC with 303 rushing yards, and he leads the SEC with six touchdowns.

2. DT Anthony Johnson: Off to a strong start (11 tackles, 2.5 for loss), the sophomore will be a key figure against an Auburn team that will present LSU's defense with the most physical rushing game it has faced so far.

3. Mettenberger: In his first true road and SEC test, will the LSU quarterback continue to blossom or be overwhelmed by a road environment?

Auburn Tigers to watch

1. RB Onterio McCalebb: McCalebb is second on the team in rushing (214 yards on 31 carries), but has game-changing, big-play ability. He has a 100-yard kick return for a TD this season, and in 2010 his 70-yard TD run against LSU was a game-winner in a 24-17 AU win.

2. DE Corey Lemonier: With three sacks and a blocked kick, Lemonier's the kind of disruptive force who can change the course of a game for an underdog.

3. Frazier: The sophomore will probably have to play the best game of his young career for Auburn to have a chance.

Key matchup

AU special teams vs. LSU special teams: LSU prides itself on special teams and has an all-American punter (Brad Wing), the SEC's most accurate field goal kicker in 2011 (Drew Alleman) and return threats (Odell Beckham, Jr., already has a punt return for a TD). Auburn is also good with McCalebb's TD return, a 6-for-6 season so far for kicker Cody Parkey, and three blocked kicks.

By the numbers

5-1: Auburn's record in the last five home games against LSU.

1980: The last year Auburn started SEC play 0-2, a record it's hoping to avoid Saturday.

8: SEC West championships claimed by the winner of the LSU-Auburn game in the last 12 years.

The SEC has six players on the 2012 preseason watch list for the Lou Groza Award, which is presented annually to the nation's most outstanding kicker.

Here are the six SEC players who made the Groza watch list:
For the full Lou Groza watch list, go here.

The SEC also has five players on the 2012 preseason watch list for the Ray Guy Award, which is presented annually to the nation's most outstanding punter.

Here are the five SEC players who made the Guy watch list:
For the full Ray Guy watch list, go here.

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