With more than one-third of the games being close ones it's easy to see why special teams can play such a vital role in the outcome. With an average of four close games per season, special teams can make the difference between an average season and a good one.
Scott Fountain returned to the field in 2013 as a position coach after spending the previous four years as Auburn's director of football operations. He was assigned to coach Auburn's tight ends and H-Backs along with coordinating the special teams. Gus Malzahn named Fountain to his current position after Rich Bisaccia elected to pursue an opportunity to return back to the NFL rather than remain with the 2013 Auburn coaching staff.
Though it is often stated that special teams accounts for one-third of the game, the reality is that special teams accounted for 17.9 percent of the plays during Auburn's games over the past 25 years. On average special teams are on the field for about 35 snaps per contest or one every six plays.
Often special teams plays go relatively unnoticed unless a turnover or big play occurs. However, special teams performance is magnified when games are tightly contested deep into the fourth quarter.
It was the magnificent performance by Auburn's punt team that kept Florida State on a long field during the BCS Championship game, but a touchdown return surrendered late in the contest was a key play in the Seminoles rallying for the victory.
Auburn returns the majority of its contributors from the 2013 SEC Championship squad, but must replace Steven Clark (punter) and Cody Parkey (kicker) as well as Chris Davis (punt returns) and Tre Mason (kick-returns). On paper this might not appear to be a major priority, but when you consider that half of Auburn's 14 games during the 2013 season were decided by eight points or less, it could become critical.
Here are Auburn's 2013 national rankings in special teams:
Punt Return Offense……....No. 23
Punt Return Defense……....No. 52
Net Punting……………… ..No. 9
Kick Return Offense……… No. 27
Kick Return Defense ………No. 123
Kickoff Touchback Pct.……No. 3
Field Goal Pct……………....No. 67
Of all the special teams plays during the course of a game, 70 percent take place during kickoffs and punts. Excluding Auburn's meager kick return average allowed this past season, the Tigers had an average national ranking of 22.8 in kickoffs and punts. It was one of the primary reasons why Auburn compiled a 5-1 record in games decided by seven points or less.
With Malzahn on staff the Tigers have compiled an impressive 16-4 record in close games. The hidden success of special teams comes by way of field position. During the 2013 season 72.3 percent of opponents' possessions began at least 75 yards away from the Auburn end zone. This was a significant improvement from the 55.8 percent during the 2012 season. Forcing the opponent to compete on a long field normally translates to fewer scoring opportunities.
Though Auburn was No. 123 nationally in yards allowed per kick return, Parkey made up for the deficiency by his No. 3 national ranking in touchback percentage. Parkey was able to hammer the majority of his kickoffs deep into the end zone preventing the opponent from returning the kickoffs.
Less than 30 percent of Parkey's kickoffs were returned during the 2013 season. The senior place-kicker credited his deep kicks to a combination of leg strength and technique. "I don't have the strongest leg, but I have good technique," Parkey said. "Everything combined helps me kick it out of the end zone. A lot of guys probably have stronger legs than me, but aren't capable of doing that."
Steven Clark was a three-year starter for the Tigers.
Clark was No. 9 nationally in net punting this past season with a knack for dropping the football inside the opponent's 20-yard line. Of Auburn's 56 punts during the 2013 season only five were returned. This more than made up for Auburn's No. 52 ranking in yardage allowed in punt returns.
Clark notes that Fountain works hard in his assignment as special teams coach. "Coach Fountain does a really good job making sure Cody and I are on the same page with him as far as scheming our opponents and making sure we have a good game plan each and every week," Clark said. "He does a really good job making sure all of our special teams are on the same page and really prepared."
Special teams accounted for four Auburn touchdowns during the 2013 season with one playing a critical role in the outcome of the regular season opener vs. Washington State and another in the regular season finale vs. Alabama. The other two came against Tennessee, turning a close game into a runaway victory for the Tigers.
The return of a missed field goal for a touchdown against Alabama kept Auburn's conference and national championship run alive. "Incredible experience to be from this state and be a part of what happened that day," Fountain said. "After the timeout we made the swap and put our punt returner in and the rest is history. Chris (Davis) made an unbelievable run with some darn good blocking."
The Tigers must replace Davis, who was No. 3 nationally in punt returns while averaging 18.7 yards.
Mason ranked No. 21 nationally in kickoff return average. Corey Grant does return in 2014 and he had a better kick return average than Mason.
In recent years Auburn teams have had great success in kickoff returns and have been inconsistent returning punts so replacing Davis will be a major challenge for coaches Fountain and Tim Horton. However, Auburn has plenty of skill players to select from in order to field their next return units.
Auburn's average national ranking in punt returns the past nine seasons is No. 68, shooting up from No. 58 in 2012 to No. 22 during 2013. Quan Bray, Marcus Davis and Trovon Reed combined for an average of 3.9 yards per return on 15 attempts during 2013. All three should get a look for 2014 with Bray and Reed having the most experience in returning punts. Finding that hidden gem to field punts could pay major dividends for a team that was No. 49 in combined kick and punt return averages and No. 44 in total yardage gained per game from returns.
Though special teams play never receives the same fanfare as offense and defense, it remains an indispensable part of the game. The kickers, punters and return personnel require talent, athleticism and technique.
When you consider the fact four out of every 10 league games in the Southeastern Conference were decided by seven or fewer points this past season many coaches around the conference will place a high priority on special teams. Expect Malzahn and his coaching staff to be in the group that emphasizes this phase of the game as they look to build a competitive and complete team for the 2014 season.