AUBURN, Ala. — Special teams is easy to overlook on any team.
Auburn is no exception. Despite their solid play, special teams have been lost in the shadow of the Tigers' two more glamorous units. Special teams have had their share of bright spots, though, highlighted by Tre Mason's 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in the season opener.
Elsewhere, kicker Cody Parkey has made 4 of his 5 field goal attempts, while more than half of his kickoffs (8 of 14) have been touchbacks. Fellow senior specialist Steven Clark has been similarly steady, averaging 41.6 yards per punt, with a third (three) of his nine kicks traveling over 50 yards. He has also had three of his punts downed inside the 20-yard line.
Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn said much of the credit for the special teams' success is owed to Scott Fountain's influence.
"Scott has done a great job," Malzahn said following Wednesday's practice. "He had a very good grip on the special teams being here before. He’s taken some of the past and made some stuff his own. But he’s an 'attention to detail' guy. I tried to hire him at Arkansas State last year as my special team coordinator and he stayed here."
Malzahn also explained why the team has kept Mason on kick returns and cornerback Chris Davis on punt returns, despite both playing large roles elsewhere.
"Special teams is a third of the game and I believe you put your best players on the field," he said. "I think we’ll have a chance to get better as the year goes on in all aspects."
Mullen sees similarities between Bulldogs, Tigers
Just two games into the season, Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen said it's far too soon to know his team's identity.
Much of it is due to the team's youth, as he recalled the Bulldogs dressed only five seniors last week in their 51-7 victory against Alcorn State.
"I think it's a pretty young team (and that will change) as they come together," he said during the SEC's weekly coaches' teleconference Wednesday. "It's still developing, that whole overall personality of the team. But I think they are working hard as a group. I've liked their effort. I like the team aspect that everybody brings, which is a pretty unselfish team of guys that are all working together to achieve wins."
Mullen said his team doesn't look all that different from Auburn, which he noted has young players in key spots as well.
"They don't have a lot of seniors on that two-deep (depth chart) on the defensive side of the ball," he said. "They do have some more, I think, on offense. But you do see a different team."
Malzahn says team has 'solid' Wednesday practice
According to Malzahn, Auburn's practice Wednesday was satisfactory.
Nothing more, nothing less.
"I thought we had a solid practice, a big third-down day," he said. "Our guys were a lot more intense today, even (more) than they were yesterday and I thought that was a good thing. We need to have another good one tomorrow."
The focus on third down wasn't exclusive to one side of the ball, Malzahn said, as winning that battle on offense and defense is equally important.
"It’s very critical each week as the game gets more important," Malzahn said. "Third down, usually you can look at that and it’ll have a big factor in the game whether you win or lose. We need to get better on both sides of the football on third down."
The Tigers have also had two players practicing at scout team quarterback to try to prepare for both Tyler Russell and Dak Prescott. Russell is the team's unquestioned starter, but he rested last week as he continues to recover from a concussion suffered in the season opener. Prescott took his place last Saturday and led the Bulldogs to a 51-7 victory against Alcorn State.
However, the dual-scout team quarterback approach is nothing new for Auburn.
"We’ve done that the last couple of weeks, even last week," Malzahn said. "There were two or three different guys they had and this group has two guys. I know our coaches have plans for both."
Defensive end Dee Ford and "Star" Justin Garrett have been "mixing and matching" with different units this week and have yet to miss a practice, Malzahn said. But as he has done every time the topic has been mentioned this week, Malzahn refused to shed any light on their status for Saturday.
Ford (knee injury) and Garrett (ankle sprain) have sat out the Tigers' first two games.