LSU Report Card: 2017 Tigers special teams, coaching staff

It was an experiment destined to be a short-lived solution for LSU.

When the NCAA punted the addition of a 10th assistant coach to January 2018, Ed Orgeron got creative with how LSU’s special teams would be coached in 2017. Consultant Jerry McMahon guided LSU assistant coaches on the nuances of special teams play, and in turn they shared the information with the players.

In some cases it worked, and in others it didn’t. LSU’s special teams were very much a mixed bag compared to a 2016 season that saw special teams coordinator Bradley Dale Peveto cut loose once Ed Orgeron got the full-time head coaching job.

2017 2016
Punt return average 11.6 7.8
Kickoff return average 20.2 19.1
Net punting 38.9 39.6
Punt percentage inside 20 38.8 38.5
Kickoff average 63.6 61.3
Touchback percentage 45.6 20.9
Field goals 15/24 (62.5%) 11/15 (73.3%)

Here is how SEC Country graded out LSU’s special teams this year:

Place-kicking: D

You’re probably wondering how this isn’t an F. Because for as bad as LSU’s kicking game was, it never was the determining factor in a Tigers a loss this season. Indeed, Connor Culp was the opposite of the stereotypical college kicker — when a game was on the line, he was dead perfect.

Without Culp hitting the go-ahead field goal against Auburn, then adding another that put the game out of reach, LSU would not have its signature win of the season.

Outside of that, Orgeron is correct in his assessment that he needs to recruit a kicker. If nothing else, Culp needs to be pushed by someone better than Jack Gonsoulin, who was 4-for-9 on field-goal attempts.

But it wouldn’t hurt to score more touchdowns in the red zone. LSU was 68th nationally in red-zone touchdown percentage (60.8 percent), forcing them to rely on two shaky kickers.

Punting: B+

Zach Von Rosenberg could become the greatest former professional baseball player turned punter in college football history. When incumbent Josh Growden got a case of the shanks, the 27-year-old walk-on did better than anyone could have expected and became LSU’s “long-range” punter. He averaged 43.3 yards per punt on 33 punts, with 15 resulting in fair catches. He was named SEC special teams player of the week after an outstanding game at Tennessee.

Growden seemed to take well to his “short-range” punting role. The duo combined to have 38.8 percent of their punts downed or fair caught inside the 20-yard line. Only 10 LSU punts were returned this season — none longer than 14 yards after Von Rosenberg was promoted.

Kickoffs: A-

Last year, Cameron Gamble had 14 touchbacks on 63 kickoffs. This year, he had 30 on 62 kickoffs. Opponents had a slightly better return average this season, but that is in part because there were 13 fewer kickoffs returned against the Tigers this season.

LSU fared poorly in kickoffs and coverage against BYU and Chattanooga, but Gamble rebounded nicely from there, with the exception of the Ole Miss game. Since LSU still beat the Rebels with ease, we aren’t marking him down too much for that.

Kickoff Returns: C-

LSU did nothing great returning kickoffs this season. Nor did the Tigers do anything awful. Thanks to a combo of stingy defense and a lot of touchbacks, only two teams in the country returned fewer kicks than the Tigers this year — Alabama and Utah. (LSU had 18 returns, while the Crimson Tide and Utes each had 15.)

LSU’s 20.2 yards per return average rated 84th in the country, and the Tigers didn’t break a single one longer than 30 yards. If nothing else, that’s a testament to consistency. A consistency of total mediocrity.

Punt returns: Does not compute

By the numbers, LSU improved by leaps and bounds as a punt returning unit this season. The Tigers ranked No. 19 in the nation by average thanks to a pair of early-season DJ Chark touchdowns.

But sometimes numbers don’t tell the same story as your eyes do. LSU only returned 16 punts this season compared to 24 in each of the previous two years. In fact, that’s the fewest punt returns in LSU history dating to 1960.

That’s a peculiar stat for a defense that forced opponents to punt 69 times. (In 2010, LSU forced 68 punts but had 32 returns.) Punts were often allowed to bounce on the ground and get downed by opponents to put LSU in precarious field position.

After his two returns for 83 yards against Auburn, Chark’s most recent six punt returns have gone for a combined minus-1 yard.

Chark and the LSU return unit are capable of being very dangerous. They are also capable of doing less than nothing. I’m not sure how you grade that, but the statistics don’t tell the whole story here.

Coaching: C+

Ed Orgeron’s first full season as LSU’s head coach was a roller coaster. If we had handed out midterm grades, he’d be skating by with a D-minus, and that’s only because the sixth game was LSU’s 17-16 escape from Florida that ended up changing the course of the season.

Orgeron’s decision to meddle with the offense the week of the Troy game was a spectacular blunder. Annoyed with the bells and whistles and doilies of Matt Canada’s pre-snap shifts, he ordered a “simplification” against the Trojans. It resulted in zero points at halftime, and by the time LSU went back to what worked, it was too late.

That said, what Orgeron did to keep his team motivated following that loss showed us exactly why he was hired for the job. He gets people fired up. Look at how sideways Florida’s season went after the LSU loss — or Florida State’s after the Alabama loss. Orgeron didn’t let that happen with the Tigers. He imparted to his players the attitude that something like a 20-0 deficit to the eventual SEC West champion is no reason to freak out.

The best thing Orgeron has done is get the team past the mindset that the season is over after a loss to Alabama. Some fans stopped paying attention after the SEC championship was out of reach, but the Tigers thumped their final three opponents following the setback in Tuscaloosa.

With Canada a little too eager to find a head coaching job, it seems the ramifications of Orgeron’s mistake are still lingering. On the balance, he did a slightly above-average job this season, rebounding from an awful start to a very good finish. The Tigers had the look of a 9-3 team before the season, and that’s exactly how things ended up, albeit unconventionally.

The post LSU Report Card: 2017 Tigers special teams, coaching staff appeared first on SEC Country.

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