Auburn’s special teams will undergo a youth movement this spring.
Last year, the Tigers were as experienced as they come in key positions. They had a pair of four-year starters in kicker Cody Parkey and punter Steven Clark. At punt returner, they had another senior in Chris Davis. And their leading kick returner was none other than Heisman Trophy finalist Tre Mason.
All four of them are gone now, off to chase after success in the NFL.
Replacing that quartet begins during spring practice. While there are multiple specialists on the roster, the two expected to win the starting jobs both redshirted last year: kicker Daniel Carlson and punter Jimmy Hutchinson. Both were ranked at the top of their respective positions in the 2013 class by Kohl’s Kicking Academy, which is run by noted kicking guru Jamie Kohl and his family.
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During his senior season at The Classical Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., Carlson made 10 field goals and accounted for 54 touchbacks.
“He hung in there with us through two special teams coaches. We really appreciate him doing that,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn on signing day last year. “He’s got a very big leg and he’ll be a very good kicker for us.”
Hutchinson was every bit as good during his time at Harrison High School in Marietta, Ga. In his final year at the school, he averaged 39.2 yards per punt and was named a second-team all-state performer.
While Carlson and Hutchinson appear set to enter the fall penciled into the starting lineup, things aren’t nearly as clear in the return game.
Davis, whose game-winning field goal return against Alabama will never be forgotten, was far from a one-hit wonder. Nearly every time he touched the ball last season, he made things happen. He averaged 18.7 yards per return when he fielded punts, which was the third-highest in Division I. And in the games he missed, his absence was notable.
Quan Bray attempted to fill Davis’ shoes with little success; on 12 returns last season, he totaled just 61 yards. Nonetheless, Bray will likely get a chance to win the starting job this spring along with fellow receivers Marcus Davis, Trovon Reed and Tony Stevens as well as running back/corner Johnathan Ford.
There is a bit more clarity at kick return. Yes, Mason led the team in returns (15) and yardage (395) last season. But Bray was second in both categories (14 returns for 331 yards) and Corey Grant showed what he could in limited touches, returning a kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown against Tennessee.
Despite its tendency to get overlooked in favor of offense or defense, Malzahn knows the importance of specials teams.
"Special teams is a third of the game,” he said last year, “and I believe you put your best players on the field.”