Special teams is always tacked on to the end of any analysis, but we’re not doing that because we respect punters in our household (#RileyDixonForHeisman). So, while we still have a few more position groups to cover, let’s dig into the overlooked geniuses who play special teams.
(BTW, if you missed my story from earlier this year on how punters and kickers keep themselves entertained during practice, you can find it HERE.)
Let’s start, as usual, with some stats (click the chart to open in Google Sheets).
Special teams is a pretty broad term. Connecting on your field goals is likely the most impactful thing they do because it actually changes the score, but there are dozens of little things that happen on special teams that can add up to something big.
Case in point: Syracuse and Florida State.
We typically assume that, in the aggregate, the difference between the best punter and the worst, or the best kickoff team and the worst, is still relatively small. But that’s not exactly true. In the fat part of the bell curve, sure. (See our average kickoff starting field position differentials, in which 8 of 14 teams are between +2.1 and -2.1.) But on the outskirts – being really good or really bad — there’s a genuine impact.
Last season, Syracuse’s average starting field position was 7.3 yards better than its opponents. Florida State’s was 9 yards worse.
Think about that for a second. That’s the difference of 16 yards per possession in field position between being the Orange or the Seminoles. That matters a lot.
Of course, a lot goes into starting field position, right? Good offenses nab first downs, so even when they punt, they’re punting from further downfield. Same is true on the opposite end with a great defense. But even when we filter that out and look, for example, just at kickoffs, FSU was nearly 4 yards worse than its opponents, while Syracuse was 3.5 yards better. How much difference does 7 or 8 yards per possession make? Maybe not enough to turn a 5-win team into a 10-win team (as was the margin for FSU and Syracuse, respectively) but certainly enough that it could flip a close game here or there.
Syracuse was a perfect example of a team that got better all around last year — but got a lot better on special teams, and it made a huge difference. Andre Szmyt was the nation’s best kicker, but punter Sterling Hofrichter was exceptional, too. We created our own metric here called effective punt rate. It’s a bit oversimplified, but it’s essentially adding up punts from inside your own 40 that resulted in a fair catch or no return plus punts from outside your 40 that were downed inside the other team’s 20. Syracuse’s rate of effective punts was 53 percent — more than double what Florida State managed. That’s the kind of stuff that sets a defense up for success, and of course, the Orange saw marked improvement defensively in 2018, too.
It’s worth mentioning how important blocking and tackling is, too. North Carolina needed all the help it could get last year, and it got a good bit on special teams, where it netted more than 5 yards differential on punts. That’s in part due to a terrific punt returner in Dazz Newsome (back for 2019) and in part due to really great coverage skills on the other end, where Carolina allowed 7 or fewer punt return yards in nine of 12 games (and allowed more than 20 just once).
On the other side of the coin, there’s Miami, which sheds few tears over the transfer decision of punter Zack Feagles, but got nothing more from replacement Jack Spicer either. The Canes ranked 119th in net punting, were 12th in the ACC in effective punt rate and 13th in special teams efficiency overall. Of course, we’ll assume this will all change in 2019 as Miami brings in the most badass punter in sports history.
Of course, that was nothing compared with Florida State. For as much criticism was leveled at the offensive line, the special teams may have been worse. FSU opponents had 12 drives start in plus territory following a punt last year. Only Arkansas was worse among Power 5 teams. Only 18.1 percent of Florida State’s punts were downed inside the opponent’s 20. Only Charlotte was worse in FBS (and interestingly, Alabama was the next worst Power 5 team at 20.8%). No ACC team had a lower rate of effective punts. Ricky Aguayo missed six field goals, second-most in the ACC. Opponents averaged 25.4 yards per kick return, the seventh-worst in the country. The numbers were just brutal all around.
An ugly stat for Virginia, too: The Hoos missed seven field goals overall, including six of less than 40 yards. For a team that lost three games by 4 points or less, that’s a big issue. As we noted in an earlier preview of Virginia, the Hoos played about as close as anyone last season, so mistakes in special teams loom large.
BC is another example of some atrocious kicking. This has been an ongoing issue for the Eagles for a while. Last season, they missed five PATs (only Buffalo and Alabama missed more) and only attempted nine field goals (only New Mexico tried less). As a result, BC went for it on fourth down inside the opponent’s 33 (what would’ve been a 50-yard field goal or less) 17 times (12th most nationally). Usually we’re big fans of going for it on fourth, but doing so because you don’t have an alternative is suboptimal. BC’s special teams were salvaged by an astonishingly good season from Michael Walker (1,294 return yards) but he’s gone for 2019, and that leaves a big hole to fill.
A quick word on Georgia Tech: The best part of switching away from the option is that the Yellow Jackets may punt more, so we’ll get to see more of Pressley Harvin. We love Pressley Harvin. How can you not?
🇺🇸 🇺🇸 M U R I C A 🇺🇸 🇺🇸 pic.twitter.com/P1qWAqb1I0
— Pressley Harvin III (@pharvin83) July 2, 2019
Then, there’s Clemson. I suppose you can make the case that if Clemson and Alabama were the two best teams in the nation last year, and both were abysmal on special teams, maybe special teams don’t matter all that much. That’s probably true for teams with elite talent on offense and defense, but likely not so true for everyone else. But what’s clear is that Clemson was indeed awful on special teams. The Tigers ranked dead last in the ACC in special teams efficiency, dead last in net punting margin, committed 15 penalties on special teams, had three fumbles on punt returns, and missed six field goals on the season. Will any of that matter if the offense and defense play like they did last year? No. But after looking at how dominant the Tigers were in every other category, might as well relish this moment if you’re a fan of another ACC team.
And while we’re knocking Clemson, might as well offer a rare tip o’ the cap to Louisville, which ranked second in the ACC in special teams efficiency. Why? Ya got me. They were bad in a number of the categories we looked at and committed 32 penalties on special teams (most in FBS) but smarter people than me calculate efficiency numbers, so maybe I missed something. How’s that for a backhanded compliment?
OK, time to rank ’em for 2019. Here goes…
2. Georgia Tech
3. Virginia Tech
4. Wake Forest
5. NC State
6. North Carolina
13. Boston College
14. Florida State