A brief yawn from a reporter during a late interview session last week caught the eye of Auburn special teams coordinator Jay Boulware.
The coach couldn’t help but say something.
“Yeah, that makes this guy tired, talking about special teams,” Boulware remarked with a tinge of seriousness. “That’s what most people do. They yawn until we start missing field goals and having kick returns for touchdowns, and then they want to jump on my behind.”
Neither of those two breakdowns happened last Saturday against Mississippi State, but the Tigers had enough special teams gaffes that Boulware was back on the hot seat Wednesday night, answering question after question about the only part of Auburn’s team not thriving early this season.
The problems last Saturday were most glaring on the punt unit. The Tigers, who rank 117th nationally in net punting after two weeks, shanked one and had another blocked, directly leading to 10 second-quarter Mississippi State points.
Clinton Durst hit his third punt of the night off the side of his foot. It veered straight to the sideline, only 27 yards downfield to give the Bulldogs possession at their own 49. They went on to kick a field goal.
After the Tigers went three-and-out, the Bulldogs overloaded Auburn’s spread punt formation and blocked Durst’s next effort. Robert Elliott picked it up and returned it for a touchdown, giving MSU a brief 17-14 lead.
“You guys know I’m (ticked),” Boulware said, taking responsibility. “You guys know my mentality by now. I’m (ticked). And I’ve been (ticked). And I’ll be (ticked) for a long time. I hadn’t had a punt blocked in about six years.”
That wasn’t the Tigers’ only shortcoming. The punt return unit, which ranks 112th nationally, hasn’t been much better. Auburn has tried a number of returners, from Mario Fannin to Anthony Gulley to Demond Washington, with little success. Washington is the only one who has returned a punt for positive yardage. In all, the group has a .2-yard average on five returns.
“Until we get some consistency back there, we’re going to keep trying to find our niche,” said Boulware, who is also considering Quindarius Carr in the role. “We’ve got some guys who are working hard at it, but it’s different. None of those guys have done it before. We don’t have a guy on campus who caught a punt for us last year. All those guys that caught punts for us last year are all gone.”
The kick return team, which has been largely indistinguishable, ranking 78th nationally, has suffered from a lack of blocking and players not being decisive with their cuts.
Boulware isn’t pushing the panic button yet either, but he hopes to get Auburn back to its 2008 form, when the Tigers, despite their overall struggles, were solid in all phases of special teams, ranking 11th nationally in kick returns, 12th in punt returns and 18th in net punting.
“I’m very concerned,” Boulware said. “That’s why I’m (ticked). We’re not playing well on those units right now.”