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 the 2014 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.
2015 Special Teams...Somewhat Better
UK's special teams in 2015 was ranked 72th overall last season, according to FEI. This is an improvement over 2014 when they finished the season ranked 93rd. The field goal teams had the highest rating, and the coverage units were slightly below average, but still improved from an admittably low bar.
High profile failures against Georgia and LSU in 2014 were replaced with high profile failures against Tennessee. Those events were frustrating but Cameron Sutton and Evan Berry were the best return men in the SEC last year, and made several teams look foolish. So it goes.
The return teams were a mixed bag, according to FEI. The kickoff return team's efficiency was ranked 54th in the country which was a big leap from the previous season; however, the punt return team was ranked 98th which was seven places lower than 2015. Kentucky was worse on punt returns.
Both return teams must improve in 2016 for the sake of field position.
2016 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 this year are currently unknown. The incoming freshmen will compete with the likes of JD Harmon, Sihiem King, and Ryan Timmons for return duties. The major area that needs improvement is the punt return team. This is difficult given that SEC teams feature punters that regularly put serious hang-time on their punts; however, UK needs to make the most of the opportunities they get. Make the first tackler miss and then make the most of what the blockers have set up.
What continues to be mildly concerning is UK's lack of a dedicated special teams coach. Now, to a certain extent UK proved last season that a dedicated special teams coordinator isn't necessary for improvement. You recruit enough athletes to stock your roster, your special teams will typically be pretty good. The issue of special team game-planning may not be as much an issue as the development of the kickers.
In any case, new linebacker coach Matt House will oversee special teams duties with the help of the other assistant coaches. House comes from Florida International which FEI ranks has having the 17th best special teams in 2015.
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 2014 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.
By this point, everyone knows MacGinnis kicks harder than a cassowary and has ice-cold veins. He was on several All-SEC Preseason teams. His presence was 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.
Then he got injured. MacGinnis wasn't as effective last season making 76% of his field goals and 96% of his extra points. His ranking fell to the middle of the pack in the SEC. His unfortunate miss against Vanderbilt in the second half impacted a game where points came at a premium.
If healthy, MacGinnis will make UK a better team. In close games, MacGinnis may have a bigger impact on the season that most of the players on UK's roster.
The freshman will presumably be the starting punter this fall taking over for graduated Landon Foster. He'll need steely nerves as teams will target him if he displays hesitancy or slow technique on tape or in pregame warm-ups. It's premature to judge, but this could be a problem area given his youth. If he comes ready to play like MacGinnis then there shouldn't be any problems from a mental standpoint.
The coverage teams will likely be solid again in 2016, but UK will need more help from its return men. It's also very important that MacGinnis remain healthy and efficient. UK has averaged a little over two field goals per game the last two seasons. That almost translates to an extra six points, and MacGinnis' talent in part changes the math for Stoops' 4th down decisions.
Overall, UK needs stronger play from its special teams to improve field position. UK was terrible at field position last year. Better returns gift the offense better field position, and lock-solid coverage units give the defense more leeway.
In a season that has high stakes and slim margins, special teams will be critical.