SEC position rankings: Special teams
August, 31, 2009
By ESPN.com staff | ESPN.com
Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low
We wrap up our position rankings with special teams, the part of the game that everybody always forgets about until there's a clutch kick to be made or a major breakdown in kick coverage:
1. Florida: The Gators, coached by "head special teams coach" Urban Meyer, have the best kicking game in the country. It's not even close. Brandon James has four career punt returns for touchdowns. Place-kicker Jonathan Phillips was 12-of-13 on field goals. Punter Chas Henry averaged 43.4 yards a kick, and nobody is better at blocking kicks than the Gators.
2. Alabama: Don't refer to him as just a return specialist, but senior cornerback Javier Arenas is pretty special when it comes to returning punts. He's one of the most dangerous return men in college football and is absolutely fearless. Place-kicker Leigh Tiffin is back after booting 20 field goals last season.
3. Ole Miss: It's no coincidence that when you look at the top teams in the conference, they all play good defense and are strong on special teams. Place-kicker Joshua Shene was 17-of-21 on field goals last season, and the Rebels specialized in pulling off fakes. They have their pick of speedy options in the return game.
4. Georgia: The Bulldogs are solid in all phases of the kicking game. Cornerback Prince Miller took a punt back for a touchdown last season, and Blair Walsh was one of the top freshman place-kickers in the country.
5. LSU: The hardest part for the Tigers will be replacing dependable place-kicker Colt David, the school's all-time leading scorer. They're also replacing their punter. The return game is set with Trindon Holliday, and wouldn't it be fun to see Russell Shepard back there?
6. South Carolina: The only knock on the Gamecocks is that Spencer Lanning might have to handle all the kicking duties -- place-kicking, punting and kicking off. He's coming off a solid debut season as the Gamecocks' punter. Shane Beamer has taken over as special teams coordinator. With that last name, think he might know a little something about quality special teams play?
7. Kentucky: It's been an up-and-down career for Kentucky place-kicker Lones Seiber, who's connected on just 60 percent of his field goals. The Wildcats will also miss Tim Masthay's booming punts after he led the SEC a year ago. They should make up for it in the return game, where Randall Cobb is a threat every time he touches the football.
8. Tennessee: Inconsistent special teams play was a big part of Phillip Fulmer's undoing at Tennessee. Eddie Gran is now running that show under the new staff and did an excellent job with Auburn's special teams. The Vols need a better year from place-kicker Daniel Lincoln after an off 2008 season. Freshman Nu'Keese Richardson should be dynamic in the return game.
9. Auburn: After a rocky 2008 season, place-kicker Wes Byrum has come back strong this preseason and is kicking with more confidence. Both of the Tigers' top return men from a year ago are gone, although it sounds like Mario Fannin will get plenty of opportunities this season.
10. Vanderbilt: A big part of the Commodores' success last season was that they made key plays on special teams when they had to. But most of the key components are gone. Jamie Graham takes over for D.J. Moore on punt returns, while freshman Ryan Fowler replaces place-kicker Bryant Hahnfeldt, the school's all-time scoring leader.
11. Arkansas: You name it, and Arkansas had it go wrong last season on special teams, which is why Bobby Petrino brought in former Louisville and Michigan State head coach John L. Smith to oversee the kicking game. We'll find out soon enough how much the extra emphasis has paid off.
12. Mississippi State: Like his mentor at Florida, first-year coach Dan Mullen will be overseeing special teams and trying to make them a point of emphasis at Mississippi State. They were just plain bad a year ago, as second-half blunders cost the Bulldogs in four of their eight losses.