We’re finally at the end of our position rankings and we’ll finish up with special teams. This group does a lot more than people think and teams are starting to put their best athletes out here.
Kickers and punters don’t get a lot of respect in the athletic department, but they are crucial assets to teams.
Let’s see how the SEC special-teams units stack up:
1. Georgia: It would be hard to find another special-teams unit better than the one in Athens. The Bulldogs return the dependable Blair Walsh at kicker, who nailed 20 field goals on 23 attempts (87 percent). Punter Drew Butler averaged 44.5 yards on 50 punts, with 19 landing inside the 20-yard line. Georgia also has a talented returning duo in Brandon Boykin and Branden Smith. Boykin is the school’s all-time leader in kick return yards and averaged 24.3 yards per return with a touchdown in 2010. Smith only returned 10 punts last year, but is dynamic in space.
2. Arkansas: Joe Adams might be one of the most fun guys to watch in the return game. He was fifth in the nation, averaging 15.6 yards per return last year, and is one of the shiftiest returners out there. He also had a touchdown. Dennis Johnson is back from injury and when he was healthy, he was one of the best kicker returners in the league. In the kicking game, sophomore Zach Hocker had an impressive freshman year where he connected on 16 of 19 field goals, with seven from 40 or better. Punter Dylan Breeding averaged 42.5 yards per kick and pinned 18 inside the 20.
3. Alabama: Trent Richardson not only heads the Tide’s offense, but he’s extremely dangerous as a kick returner. He averaged 26.4 yards per return and had a touchdown last year. Marquis Maze, who grabbed 21 punt returns last year, has great speed to break one at any time. Alabama actually returns two kickers in Jeremy Shelley and Cade Foster. Shelley handled kicks within the 40-yard range, while Foster had long distance duty. The job at punter hasn’t been settled, with Cody Mandell and Jay Williams battling it out.
4. Florida: Caleb Sturgis is finally healthy after suffering a back injury last season. He was solid from farther out as a freshman, but struggled to stay consistent closer to the end zone. Ray Guy winner Chas Henry is gone, but freshman Kyle Christy enrolled early and immediately took over punting duties, launching a punt 55 yards in the spring game. Andre Debose was named the nation’s top kick returner by the College Football Performance Awards in 2010 after returning two kicks for touchdowns and Chris Rainey could be the slipperiest punt returner in the SEC. Florida also has been the best punt/kick blocking team around the last few years.
5. Ole Miss: Place-kicker Bryson Rose made 16 of 18 kicks last year and should be just as solid and might have to come up with even more kicks this fall. His kicking partner, punter Tyler Campbell, had a nation-leading 46.4 yards per punt average in 2010. He launched 19 punts over 50 yards and five of 60 or more yards. Jeff Scott was solid on kick returns, but Ole Miss’ staff will look to junior college transfer Philander Moore for kick and punt returns. Last season at Blinn (Texas) College, Moore had 811 total return yards and six touchdowns.
6. Vanderbilt: Kicker Ryan Fowler and punter Richard Kent return in 2011. Fowler was solid as a freshman, but took a few steps backward in 2010 kicking 8-of-13 and missing all of his kicks from beyond 35 yards. Carey Spear, who handled kickoffs last season, could push Fowler. Kent had one of the strongest and most durable legs in the country last season, leading the nation with 84 punts and averaged 41.8 yards per kick. Twenty-seven of them were downed inside the 20. Vanderbilt did, however, have four punts blocked. When healthy, Warren Norman is one of the most dynamic returners in the league. As a freshman, he took three kickoffs back for touchdowns and averaged 25.4 yards per return before his injury last season.
7. LSU: The Tigers had one of the most exciting place-kickers to watch in Josh Jasper because he not only kicked but he was the master of the trick play. LSU will now look to Drew Alleman, who has had issues with consistency. Jasper also punted here and there, but regular punter Derek Helton is gone, leaving redshirt freshman Brad Wing in charge. The Australian-born athlete has a lot to learn about the SEC. Now that Patrick Peterson is gone, LSU is starting over in the return game. No one on the roster is as dynamic, but the Tigers will look at Rueben Randle, Tyrann Mathieu and Ron Brooks to carry the load by committee.
8. Mississippi State: Kicker shouldn’t be an issue for the Bulldogs. Derek Depasquale has hit 20-of-24 field goals in his two seasons in Starkville and nailed a 54-yarder in the spring game. Mississippi State must replace punter Heath Hutchins, but Baker Swedenburg should fill in nicely. The Bulldogs have a lot of athletes to throw out into the kicking game this year. LaDarius Perkins, who is Mississippi State’s talented backup to running back Vick Ballard, will be used on kicks, along with receiver Brandon Heavens. Chad Bumphis returned punts last season, but Heavens could take over that role.
9. Kentucky: Returners Randall Cobb and Derrick Locke are gone, but there are some athletes ready to fill in. Randall Burden, Winston Guy and Martavius Neloms got looks at punt returner this spring and there are a few options at kick returner. Both Raymond Sanders and Jerrell Priester fielded a few last season. Both kickers are back. Walk-on Craig McIntosh made 11 of 15 field goals last season, with a long of 50, while punter Ryan Tydlacka averaged 43.8 yards per kick.
10.Tennessee: Kicker Michael Palardy only attempted seven kicks last year while backing up Daniel Lincoln. His only three misses were from beyond 40 yards. Tennessee will also be breaking in new punter Matt Darr this fall. The Volunteers were in the middle of the SEC pack in kick returns last year, but were 11th in the league in punt returns, totaling just 73 punt returns. Da’Rick Rogers will return punts and showed improvements there, while the Vols have yet to find their punt returner.
11. Auburn: Record-setting kicker Wes Byrum is finally gone, so the Tigers’ new kicker literally has big shoes to fill. That person should be Cody Parkey, who primarily kicked off last year. Auburn also lost punter Ryan Shoemaker. His replacement, Steven Clark had nine punts in 2010, with two dropping inside the 20. Onterio McCalebb should return more kicks this season and dynamic redshirt freshman Trovon Reed could be used on punt returns, where the Tigers averaged just 6.2 yards per return a year ago.
12. South Carolina: Gone is dual-threat kicker Spencer Lanning, who kicked field goals and punts. Jay Wooten impressed at times this spring and can place-kick and punt. There’s a chance the Gamecocks might end up having two kickers as Patrick Fish competed for the punting spot this spring. The Gamecocks were last in the SEC with a 3.4-yard average on punt returns, while the tiny Bryce Sherman averaged 20.4 yards on kicks, with a long of 37. The shifty Ace Sanders and newcomer Damiere Byrd could compete for time at punt returner.