LSU Hopes to be “Special”
By Matthew Osborne
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LSU will once again rely on remarkable play out of their special teams for success this fall.
Reflecting back on last season, it is pretty amazing to think that LSU made it all the way to the BCS National Championship Game considering the team deployed an offense which finished the year ranked 86th in the FBS in total offense.
Boasting the nation’s second-ranked defense undoubtedly helped alleviate many of the offensive woes, but it does not tell the full tale of why the Tigers were able to achieve such a high level of success last fall.
Although we frequently hear coaches talk about the importance of special teams play, it is easy for the common fan to undervalue the tangible impact that special teams can have on a game or a season.
Fortunately, LSU used last season as an opportunity to remind us of the role that the so-called “third phase of the game” plays in determining the outcome of a season.
The Tigers arguably assembled one of the best collections of special teams units in college football history in 2011.
Redshirt freshman punter Brad Wing, who grew up playing Australian Rules football in Melbourne, ranked 11th in the nation in yards per punt (44.37), and was named a first-team All-American by four major news publications. In addition to his gaudy punting average, Wing also displayed a knack for pinning opposing teams inside their own 20-yard line. 27 of his 59 punts last season were downed inside the 20, while only five resulted in touchbacks.
At the placekicker position, junior Drew Alleman was equally as impressive. A former walk-on, Alleman successfully converted 16 of his 18 field goal attempts last season, giving him the second-highest field goal percentage in the FBS (88.9%).
While LSU had arguably the nation’s top one-two punch in the kicking department, the Tigers also possessed playmakers in the return game.
Heisman Trophy finalist Tyrann Mathieu averaged 15.6 yards per punt return in 2011, ranking fifth in the FBS. He also returned two of his 27 returns for touchdowns in a pair of the biggest games of the year.
Morris Claiborne, who also headlined as a cornerback, served as the Tigers’ primary kick returner last season. An explosive athlete, Claiborne averaged 25.8 yards per return last fall, and also returned one kick for a score.
Individuals garnered most of the attention on LSU’s special teams, but the units as a whole were very solid as well. The Tigers blocked two kicks last season, and the punt unit finished fourth in the nation in yards per return average (3.65)
Many people tend to disregard these statistics during the course of the game because some of these stats only benefit a team in the “hidden yardage” department, numbers which may not be tangibly reflected in the box score, yet can change the course of a game.
The “hidden yardage” department is frequently where LSU dominated its opponents in 2011, helping the Tigers escape the regular season undefeated despite deploying a below-average offense statistically.
With the losses of Mathieu and Claiborne in the return game, and continued uncertainty swirling around the offense, LSU will once again rely on special teams to play a major part in its success.
In order for the Tigers to replicate the success of last season, they will first have to attempt to replicate their performance on special teams.
Sophomore WR Odell Beckham, Jr. will be called upon for production in the return game, as Wing and Alleman should continue to hold down the kicking duties. Beckham emerged as a dynamic playmaker out wide for the Tigers as a true freshman, and he did return a combined total of 14 kicks last fall.
LSU head coach Les Miles has done a tremendous job of placing particular emphasis on special teams, and the team has certainly bought in to the culture.
It may not be the most glamorous part of the game, but if you are looking for an indicator for the success of LSU’s 2012 season, you may want to pay “special” attention.