Special teams are an often neglected segment of football which is ironic because it is so crucial to wins and losses. I hate to do this to you, gentle reader, but read this post I wrote in the aftermath of last season's LSU game. Poor special teams play gave LSU the ball in UK territory three times in the first half alone (not even mentioning a punt return for a TD). Those breakdowns are equivalent to turnovers. UK wasn't going to win that game regardless, but LSU's job became far simpler with the game out of hand, and UK having to ditch their game plan and play catch-up.
That's why special teams matter. A team must be solid at special teams to make the job more difficult on the opposing team. If UK averages 15 yards per punt return, that increases the pressure on the opponent's defense. If UK allows less than 5 yards per punt return, the opposing offense has even farther to go for good field position let alone a touchdown.
2014 Special Teams Requiem
UK's special teams in 2014 was ranked 107th overall last season, according to FEI (I remember S&P+ rating the special teams about several dozen slots higher but I can't find that now). Notably, this ranking is dragged down the most by kick-off efficiency and punt efficiency, with the return efficiencies were both ranked in the 80's. The lone bright spot is UK was ranked 8th overall in terms of field goal efficiency. UK has a great place-kicker and he's only a redshirt sophomore, folks (more on him below).
The blame for last year's failures shouldn't be totally placed on a departed assistant coach who wore alternative headgear. That makes for a "funny" radio soundbite or Twitter humor, but it doesn't tell the entire story. UK's returners were either young or physically limited, and their blocking support was no different. Same goes for the coverage teams trying to defend the opposing return game. Poor field position resulting from bad rushing defense, or an offense unable to string together first downs, exacerbates things further for relatively young and ill-equipped special team units. Those issues go well beyond a special teams coach who in several ways was dealt a poor hand.
High profile systemic failures against Georgia and LSU did the reputation of UK's special teams no favors. The offense not moving the ball against Tennessee or UofL in the second half also did them no favors. Early in the season, when UK faced it's weakest competition, the special teams did their job even if it was unspectacular with exception of the place-kicking. It was after facing better teams, and also better special team units, that weaknesses were exposed.
2015 Special Teams Outlook
The special teams will presumably be better, but that's largely based on the athletes recruited by Stoops increasingly filling the roster. The quality of the second and third string is better than it was 4 years ago, for example, and it is those players will who will now participate on special teams for the most part.
The returners should be better too, but by how much is an unknown. Many of those guys are stilling adapting to the college game, which is obvious when one watches them on offense, but it's the same for special teams too. In high school, they could essentially "cheat" by not reading their blocks and get by on their blazing speed alone. Not anymore.
What's concerning is UK's lack of a dedicated special teams coach. UK has a finite amount of assistant coaching positions, and has judged the special teams can succeed if the assistants crowd-source the position. We'll see if that works, but I'm concerned about special teams game-planning, and the specialists getting daily individual attention. Nonetheless, I think it's wise for us all to reserve judgement until the end of the season as in 95% of things.
Austin MacGinnis - Place Kicker
MacGinnis was one of the handful of recruits Mark Stoops elected to keep after Joker's departure. That was somewhat surprising as the roster seemed to need as many non-kickers as possible. Further surprising was when MacGinnis was redshirted eliminating the argument that UK needed to take him because they had to have a kicker in 2013. It wasn't until last year that keeping MacGinnis on the roster made sense to the public. That moment came at the Swamp when the redshirt freshman connected on a 51 yard field goal with UK down 17-20 in the fourth quarter to force overtime. He would finish the season making 80% of his field goals, and 100% of his extra points. That was third best in the SEC last season.
Coming into this season, everyone knows MacGinnis kicks harder than a cassowary and has ice-cold veins. He's on several All-SEC Preseason teams, and will probably be on a few more in his next three seasons. His presence is a luxury to the team, because if they can get within 45 yards of the endzone, the coaches are going to feel pretty good about walking away with at least three points.
Landon Foster - Punter
Foster has started every season at UK, and the senior will do so again in 2015. Perusing his season averages, Foster has always averaged about 41-42 yards per punt, but that's always placed him in the middle of the pack in the SEC. For historical perspective, he falls short of Tim Masthay's 45 yards per punt, and Ryan Tydlacka's best 44 yards per punt.
Beyond distance, it is also important for a punter to have a good hang-time and accuracy. Those numbers aren't captured statistically, but they make a difference. A low 46 yard punt that gets to the returner in 2.5 seconds is not a better option than a 40 punt that gets to the returner in 5.5 seconds. For example, in the LSU link above Foster blamed his punting on UK's loss. In that first half he punted in order: 47 yards, 42 yards, and 48 yards. Further underscoring how punting goes beyond just raw distance. As much as his line blocks for him, his punts serve their subsequent coverage responsibilities. They have to work in tandem.
This is Foster's last season to improve the facets of his game. He's an experienced vet who has plateaued in some ways the last two seasons, but some aspects, like directional punting, can always be improved upon.
Place-kicking and punting both look to hold serve relative to 2014, but incremental improvements would not be a surprise. If either back tracks that would be a surprise given experience and historical precedent. The wider special teams units should also be improved given the caliber of athlete and experience in the ranks, but not having a dedicated special teams coach is worrisome.