AUBURN, Ala. — With his numbers bolstered by a full class of newcomers, Auburn special teams coordinator Jay Boulware has noticed his conversations with Gene Chizik lasting longer.
"It's given me about a full day and a half so far talking to the head coach about personnel," Boulware said. "Last year, that talk was about two hours long.
"It's been refreshing."
Finally with a full complement of scholarship players at his disposal, Boulware hopes to see a major improvement in the Tigers' special teams coverages this year.
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Despite Chizik's hands-on work with groups, Auburn's coverage units struggled last year, ranking 97th nationally in defending punt returns and 106th on kickoffs.
Limited by their depth, the Tigers relied on several walk-ons and inexperienced players for those tasks. It cost them a few times.
In a 44-23 loss to Arkansas, Auburn allowed the Razorbacks to average 48.3 yards on three kick returns, a major swing in the field position battle. Against Ole Miss a few weeks later, Dexter McCluster went untouched on an 82-yard kick return for a touchdown.
Auburn's 31-member signing class should help. Although Boulware cautioned that it will take time for the freshmen to be taught the basics, coaches have marveled about the athleticism of the group.
"There are some guys that are extremely talented, more talented than they were last year," Boulware said. "We're a faster football team, and, hopefully, that translates over to the field."
While the coverage unit personnel could be a revolving door, Auburn is set at several special teams spots.
Senior Wes Byrum is back at place-kicker after going 15-for-16 on field goals last season and setting the school's single-season record for points by a kicker with 99.
"That's the only job that's secure right now," Boulware said.
Byrum wants to handle kickoffs as well, despite struggling to reach the end zone. In 13 attempts last year, he had only two touchbacks.
Boulware hasn't ruled out strong-legged freshman Cody Parkey as the kickoff specialist.
"He's got a good strong leg," Byrum said. "Actually, he's further along than I was when I got here, which is good."
The competitions for the punt and kick return jobs appear to be reaching a conclusion. Wide receivers coach Trooper Taylor, who oversees the punt returners, said Quindarius Carr is the man to beat, followed by Darvin Adams and freshmen Trovon Reed and Jonathon Mincy.
Auburn returns all but two members of its kick return unit, which averaged 23.7 yards per return last season, 27th-best in the nation.
Demond Washington, who thrived in the role late last season, and speedster Onterio McCalebb are the lead kickoff returners, although one is usually paired with an off returner on any given kickoff. Other candidates include Mario Fannin, Terrell Zachery, Neiko Thorpe and Reed.
The punting competition, meanwhile, remains a dead heat between senior Ryan Shoemaker and true freshman Steven Clark, who have excelled in different ways this August.
Shoemaker, who averaged 42.4 yards per punt as a freshman before being beaten out for the job by Clinton Durst the past two seasons, is getting more distance. Clark, a 6-foot-5 freshman from Kansas City, has more hang time and a quicker release.
Boulware expects to choose a starter within in the next week and would rather not split duties between the two contenders.
"I prefer to let a guy go and get into a rhythm and work his way through it, just like everybody else," he said. "It's just a matter of if they can do it consistently in front of 90,000 or in front of a road crowd that's ringing bells."