Scottie Bordelon is a reporter for WholeHogSports.com. A graduate of the University of Arkansas, Bordelon previously covered high school sports for the Times Record in Fort Smith and the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in Springdale. He is a member of the U.S. Basketball Writers Association and Football Writers Association of America, and was awarded 2022 Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year.
Investment in special teams coordinator varies across SEC
Auburn receiver Ryan Davis returns a punt during the fourth quarter of a game against Arkansas on Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018, in Auburn, Ala.
FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas coach Chad Morris mentioned early in his Monday press conference that the Razorbacks’ performance on special teams against Auburn last week was unacceptable.
The Tigers found a great deal of success in punt and kickoff return in a 34-3 win at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Auburn’s Noah Igbinoghene returned a Connor Limpert kickoff 96-yards for a touchdown in the third quarter, immediately following the Razorbacks’ lone score of the game.
Arkansas’ punt coverage did not fare much better. Auburn totaled 95 yards on three punt returns, led by Chris Davis, who finished the night with two returns for 84 yards and a long of 48. That came one week after North Texas received national recognition for its 90-yard fake fair catch punt return for a touchdown.
Limpert missed a field goal for the third consecutive game, a 40-yard attempt in the first half. The Razorbacks averaged a putrid 33.8 yards per punt.
Given the lack of success in the all-important third phase of the game, Morris was asked this week if, when assembling his staff, he considered hiring a special teams coordinator as his 10th assistant coach.
“A lot of the programs across the country do exactly what we’re doing. We have a special teams analyst, which goes in and breaks it all down and puts together the plan,” he said Monday. “And we all look at it in a staff meeting and look at it as each coach has his own individual responsibilities in special teams. And so outside of just taking one guy that’s on the field and put him totally aside for special teams, we haven’t done that, no.”
Of the 14 teams in the Southeastern Conference, Arkansas is one of four that does not have a special teams coordinator on staff, along with Missouri, Texas A&M and Ole Miss.
Missouri, Arkansas and Texas A&M do, however, have special teams analysts on its support staffs. For Arkansas that is Tanner Burns, a holdover from former coach Bret Bielema's staff.
The investment in special teams coordinators varies from program to program. Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason grabbed from the NFL ranks and brought to Nashville a coordinator, Shawn Mennenga, with special teams insights.
When faced with the decision to hire a special teams coordinator or a tight ends coach to his staff, he elected to go with a coach who could teach players and get them to buy in on the importance of special teams.
“It was about getting someone who has been there at the highest level and helping these guys understand the importance of walking into the room every day and developing that skillset,” Mason said Wednesday. “All guys want to play at the next level, but what they don’t realize is most of those guys are going to be playing special teams.
“The idea of getting better on special teams, creating a culture of special teams and getting somebody who can teach and relate to these guys was something that I went after.”
Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt and South Carolina coach Will Muschamp are also proponents of special teams coordinators and believe they add great value to a team.
“I think you have somebody that that is his specialty,” said Pruitt, who hired former Florida State defensive coordinator Charles Kelley to oversee special teams for the Volunteers. “He owns it, he owns the organization that goes with it and the preparation. I think it’s tough for one guy to do special teams in itself. I think it takes a whole staff to coach, teach, develop the guys to understand the schemes from a technical aspect and to get it done.
“It takes a lot of pressure off the head coach to have one.”
Muschamp, who has two coaches with special teams titles - coordinator Coleman Hurtzler and assistant Kyle Krantz - on his staff, said it is important for players to “hear one voice” for special teams and it be “no different than the offensive and defensive coordinator.”
Like Morris, Ole Miss coach Matt Luke said he considered bringing a special teams coordinator on board. The Rebels have a special teams analyst who does prep work and film study throughout the week.
At Arkansas, Jeff Traylor and Barry Lunney Jr. work with the punt teams, while John Scott and Mark Smith take on kickoff responsibilities. Traylor and Arkansas defensive ends coach Steve Caldwell have served as special teams coordinators in the past - Caldwell for Bobby Petrino and John L. Smith at Arkansas - and Smith was a college kicker.
Between punter Sam Irwin-Hill's fake punt for a touchdown in 2014 and Texas A&M's Christian Kirk's 100-yard kickoff return in a back-and-forth fourth quarter in 2017, special teams has typically played a role in the Southwest Classic matchup between Arkansas and Texas A&M, which will be renewed Saturday at 11 a.m.
A performance similar to its previous two games could spell more trouble for the Razorbacks.
"Your fundamentals have to hold up under pressure," Morris said. "That’s something we’ve got to go back and we’re going to look at … It was unacceptable. We’ve got to get better in all phases in our special teams."
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