Special Team Summary – An Attempt At An Overall Look

GTNavyNuke

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Special Teams are really important to the success of a season. Not as important as the offense or defense overall but very important. In this post, I try to examine the importance of STs and where GT stands and outlook.

I often cringe when people say ST are good or bad because STs are so diverse. But then I go off and say it too. For the purposes of breaking them down, I put them in four different phases.

Phase 1: Returns of Kickoffs and punts.

Phase 2: GT Kickoffs and punts.

Phase 3: GT Field goals and extra points

Phase 4: Opponent field goals and extra points

The pie chart below shows that about 20% of all the plays we ran last year were ST. Compare that to about 40% for O or D.


It would seem that we would talk and focus more on ST; especially when you consider that the net yardage from a ST play and points per play is a lot higher for ST plays than O plays (or D plays). The average O play for GT in 2013 was 6.1 yards and our D gave up 5.5 yards per play on average. But kickoff returns (not including touchbacks) were 22 yards and punt returns were an average of 8.9 yards. Punts and kickoffs average 44 and 63 yards, respectively. Also, field goals put 3 points on the board and extra points (somewhat automatic) put one on the board. So on a per play basis, ST plays are more impactful than an average O or D play; and the pie chart shows there are half as many ST plays overall as O or D plays.

Since ST are so important (to me at least), I have followed the ST stats for the last few years (on Jim’s GTSports site). As a GT fan who suffered through the ST debacle of a year in 2010 and looking at ACC play, I know we have gotten better. In 2010 we stunk. Remember the Air Force Bowl Game where AF’s best play was to punt the ball to us and recover the fumble? Don’t tell me that ST can’t determine the game outcome. I think we have gotten better because of several interrelated things, largely where CPJ has changed his attitude:

• Putting the best players on the ST. This is done within reason, since you never put your starting QB on ST. But we are putting more starters on ST than early in the CPJ days.

• A ST coach to focus efforts, strategy and motivate. CPJ resisted and said this wasn’t needed and then changed.

• Better depth of talent on the team

• Recruiting emphasis of kickers – Butker and others on scholarship. How can there be an argument over whether or not key ST players are worthy of scholarship positions?

I have come around to the idea that the best way to measure our ST performance was to rank our performance against other ACC teams for only ACC games. That way the teams we play against and other ACC teams play against are more or less the same each year. I use CFB stats. { http://www.cfbstats.com/2013/conference/821/index.html } Then last year I heard about Football Outsiders and their FEI ratings – not only for O and D but also ST. { http://www.footballoutsiders.com/stats/feist2013 }

So what I’ll do is break down the phases of ST using ACC only stats and then Football Outsiders data if the data is available.


Phase 1: Returns of Kickoffs and punts.

KO Returns: ACC 7th at 21.5 yards per return.

ACC 12th at opponent Kick Offs yielding 62.5 yards.

Football Outsiders KO Return Efficiency – 53rd in country.

Our Kickoff return game was weak. We had poor starting position since we allowed 24% touchbacks (6th fewest in ACC). Then when we did return the ball, it wasn’t that good.


Punt returns: ACC 6th at 11.2 yard per return.

Football Outsiders punt return efficiency – 18th in country.

Against all opponents, we returned the second fewest (19) of any ACC team. The rate of ACC punt returns was only 28%; we tied for 3rd lowest rate in the ACC. VT returned 52%. I think we were more conservative given the horrors of years past.


Outlook: Improved as Golden is back and Qua Searcy (Fr) who has been doing well on returns. We really need to be less conservative/effective on returns so that that we get better starting position.


Phase 2: GT Kickoffs and punts.

Kickoffs: ACC 3rd at 62.7 yards.

Touchbacks: ACC 5th at 40%.

Opponent KO Returns: ACC 11th at 23 yards.

Football Outsiders KO Efficiency – 59th in country.

Looking at game splits against ranked teams, we had fewer touchbacks against ranked teams - better teams return more kicks even if in the end zone. Butker got better as the year went on, with the exception of the Clemson game where he was only 1 for 5. That could have been Clemson being aggressive and challenging our return coverage.


Our KO return coverage wasn’t that good either at 11th for the ACC. Need to improve there. The best way is to kick it out of the end zone.


Punts: ACC 3rd at 44.0 yards per punt.

ACC 11th at 12.0 yards per opponent punt return.

Football Outsiders Opponent Punt Return Efficiency – 18th in country.

Poole did best under CPJ in average yards. Overall as shown by Football Outsiders, the combination of punt distance and punt return distance was pretty good (18th). Rodwell punted in 2012 and was redshirted in 2013. In the 5 games he played in 2012, he averaged 40 yards, just like Poole did in the other games.


2013 had the most yards given up on the returns since 2010. Sort of like KO return coverage where there can be an improvement. The stats were somewhat skewed by Syracuse and Duke games which were the only teams to get over 20 yards on any punt return. Otherwise the rest of year was pretty good on coverage.


Outlook: Rodwell is going to have to step up from his 2012 average, but there are indications he has done that with very high (long hang time) punts. We also have Chau and Hinojosa as possibilities too so we shouldn’t see too much of a drop off in punting and hopefully see an improvement in punt coverage.


Phase 3: GT Field goals and extra points.

Field Goals: ACC 13th at 66.7% (4 of 6).

Football Outsiders Field Goal Efficiency – 63rd in country.

Butker was 4 of 6 in the ACC. Most ACC teams attempted more than 13 in ACC play so we don’t’ try much. Butker missed two in first ACC game against Duke then made next 4 for ACC play. In Duke game, he made 49 yd, missed 40 yd and had one blocked (low as I recall). The low point was the one he missed - a longish one (49 yards) that would have won the UGAg game.


Extra points: ACC 8th at 97% (33 of 34). (We didn’t try any 2 point conversions.)

Butker missed one against Miami. For the year he was 53 of 54 in all game, so no problem here. I don’t remember the problem with the one he missed; I think it was pushed to the side.


Outlook: Improved as Butker should get better. He started the year kicking low and corrected that. Also, we have two long snappers who are very important, Tobin (rJr) and Stroebel (So) plus Casey Wilson walked on. How many times have you noticed the long snappers? Only when the long snapper screws up are they noticed; and then it can be spectacular and a game changer.


As a side note, I think we should go for 2 on most every TD except at the end of the game where you may play for a tie. If anyone has a reliable offense for getting 3 yards, we do. We should make it 70% of the time; that’s 1.4 points versus only 1 (or .97 based on last year’s ACC stats).


Phase 4: Opponent field goals and extra points.

Opponent Field Goals: ACC 5th best D at 75% (6 of 8)

Football Outsiders Opponent Field Goal Efficiency – 32nd in country

For all games, opponents kicked only 10 of 17 FG on us; that was the 9th best defensive % in the country.


Extra points are a given; for the entire year opponents kicked 35 of 36 against us.


Outlook: No idea as I don’t know how much was D line rush and how much was luck in 2013.


Overall: We weren’t nearly as good as I thought we would be. Punting and kick coverage are my biggest concerns going into this year. We need to be better this year since this is such an important part of the game for field position and scoring FGs. I think we’ll be better overall with Golden back and Butker being more experienced. Plus we have more athleticism in the newly available players – like Qua Searcy.


By my arithmetic averaging of the ACC stats we were 7.8th. We have bounced around under CPJ from an ACC average of 6.3rd to 8.4th. So there is room for improvement.


Football Outsiders had GT at #22 last year for ST. That made the ST the best phase of our game – compared to O (38th) and D (#51st). The arithmetic average of the FO rankings was 41st. I think the reason we were 22nd for ST is that out of the 6 metrics FO uses, we didn’t really suck at any one; the lowest was 63rd for FG efficiency (and we don’t kick many FGs). So we were consistently above average and other teams probably had big problem areas.
 

GTpdm

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Wow, thanks for summarizing all those stats. Gives us all something to think about.

I just wonder how much better our overall ST stats would have been last year if you were to simply leave out our first quarter performance (more accurately, the lack thereof) in the Clemson game? Man, our "keystone cops" return game really screwed the pooch wrt field position in our first few possessions, in that game. You have to wonder whether we might have had an outside chance to win, if we hadn't given away so many easy points in Q1 that day.
 

Jay Alexander

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First of all, great write up. I would have guessed our ST play was better than where the statistics put us.

I do have a couple questions. Do these statistics account for blocked punts? We seemed to have a good season last year thanks to Chris Milton. (Didn't he at one point have more individual blocked punts than every other team in the country?)

Also, does the % of ST plays include fake punts / fake goals and defending fakes from the other team?

I've always thought the key to good special teams is to avoid the huge, momentum changing plays by the opposition or to generate your own big plays. Personally, I'll take an extra blocked punt or two, or a few 4 and 6th conversions over an extra 5 to 7 yards increase in average punt returns. Thoughts?
 

GTNavyNuke

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Great question, the # of ST plays didn't include the blocked punts, I think it is under defensive plays since I found it in the Misc Defensive plays category. I missed that blocked punts category..... we were very good in that area last year with 5 all season which was tied for fourth best in the country ...... 4 out of conference and 1 in conference! (1 Elon, 1 BYU, 1 Syracuse, 2 Ole Miss). I'll add this category next year...... last year was our best year by far under CPJ. We had blocked 3, 1, 0, 1, 1 punts in 2008 through 2012 respectively.

Fake field punts were a category I couldn't find; probably just considered to be a 4th down attempt out of punt formation.

As to the key to good ST play being to avoid big plays for the opponent or generate big plays for us; I agree. That is also true of the defense and our offense. That was an idea I was thinking about when I put in the stats on average yardage per play. The ST returns are more yardage than the average offensive or defensive play; so ST plays are more "important" per play than the average offensive or defensive play. But for the specific plays you list ... a blocked punt is a net 40 yard or so gain which could be the longest net gain of the day compared to the offensive plays. Also, converting on 4th down is like a turnover to me since we don't give up the ball. That is an aspect which isn't captured in the stats {Whole different discussion about going for it on fourth; we weren't good at all last year.}
 

Jay Alexander

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As to the key to good ST play being to avoid big plays for the opponent or generate big plays for us; I agree. That is also true of the defense and our offense.
Good point. It would be interesting to define what a "big play" is for ST and then see if we are net positive or negative in a season (or ACC play). Obviously the definition would be subjective, but there's a reason VaTech's run of success was contributed to "Beamer Ball." Seems like a lot of times, close games are decided by one or two key special teams plays.

Again, great post and thanks for going through all those stats.
 

Whiskey_Clear

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Great write up Nuke.

This is the best I have felt preseason about ST in quite some time. Butker by all accounts is improved, and was pretty darn good already last year. May be our best kicker in last 20 (or 40) years or so.

Getting Golden back is huge. Was one of the best return men in the nation before he got hurt. He will make big plays.

I think our new special teams coach will improve our schemes and play in both returns and coverage. I think we have a slew (some will be incoming frosh like the twins) of talented and athletic guys on the team that he will use to improve our return and cover units. This team has more quality depth at LB, DB, and even AB than I can recall for quite some time. These positions typically fill out ko and ko return units.

The above leads me to believe we will be leaders in the conference in FGs, xtra points, ko cover, and in returns. And I mean I believe we will be near the top in each of those categories.

Only real question mark I see is in punting the ball. If the punter truly has improved hang time, and hasn't sacrificed much in distance, we will be improved here too and just might be a conf leader in this category too. If punts haven't improved we will probably be about the same; can't say I see much drop off unless our punter goes schizo. I wouldn't mind seeing the twins used as our gunners on punts. Fast. athletic, agressive hitters...could create a bit of apprehension in minds of opposing return guys.

Our ST will win us some games this year IMO. And I don't think there is much threat ST will lose any for us.
 

GTNavyNuke

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Whiskey,

I was worried about punting too till I looked at these stats http://www.cfbstats.com/2012/team/255/punting/index.html . It made sense to red shirt Rodwell last year so he can punt for the next three. Also Rodwell should have gotten since 2012 when he last punted in a game.

But the kick / punt return coverage remains my principal concern until we see that it is fixed. I agree with the depth logic; but you have to show me :pompous: We should be as good or better than last year; and last year the ST was probably the strongest aspect of our game. Just not as strong as I felt.
 

AE 87

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I think that we're all looking forward to Jamal coming back from injury, but will the right forearm and hand amputation affect his return game?

 
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Great question, the # of ST plays didn't include the blocked punts, I think it is under defensive plays since I found it in the Misc Defensive plays category. I missed that blocked punts category..... we were very good in that area last year with 5 all season which was tied for fourth best in the country ...... 4 out of conference and 1 in conference! (1 Elon, 1 BYU, 1 Syracuse, 2 Ole Miss). I'll add this category next year...... last year was our best year by far under CPJ. We had blocked 3, 1, 0, 1, 1 punts in 2008 through 2012 respectively.

Fake field punts were a category I couldn't find; probably just considered to be a 4th down attempt out of punt formation.

As to the key to good ST play being to avoid big plays for the opponent or generate big plays for us; I agree. That is also true of the defense and our offense. That was an idea I was thinking about when I put in the stats on average yardage per play. The ST returns are more yardage than the average offensive or defensive play; so ST plays are more "important" per play than the average offensive or defensive play. But for the specific plays you list ... a blocked punt is a net 40 yard or so gain which could be the longest net gain of the day compared to the offensive plays. Also, converting on 4th down is like a turnover to me since we don't give up the ball. That is an aspect which isn't captured in the stats {Whole different discussion about going for it on fourth; we weren't good at all last year.}
Failing to convert on fourth down is more aptly like a turnover, in that you give up possession and field position. Making the first on fourth is the same as making a first down on second or third. True you chose to risk field position or maybe even points if you are in field goal range, but if you make it , no harm and a fresh set of downs.
 

GTNavyNuke

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It depends on whether the glass is described as half empty or half full. What you say is true. But making it on 4th when you otherwise would have given the ball away is as good as getting a turnover with a fresh set of downs. For us, with a stronger O than D most years, I'd rather go for it than turn it over. If we had an Alabama D and O, I'd probably want to kick it more.
 

Whiskey_Clear

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I'm ok going for it on 4th down a bit more. Lets please just limit that to the areas of the field between the fifty..and other teams 38 yd lines. Caveat is 4th and less than a yard with favorable game conditions.
 

GTNavyNuke

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Woffard overview: I was impressed with Butler - 5 out of 6 KO's were touch backs. At least one even went into the stands and another hit the wall. He did miss an easy FG though. Whatever happened to start making him kick mad is something we need every game.

The one that wasn't a TB was returned for 34 yards by W.

Punting was good, one for 40 and another for 45. About average from what Poole did last year. And nice hang time, not line drives.

Punt returns were highlighted by Golden's muffed return that fortunately went out of bounds. Lucky. He redeemed himself somewhat with the 40 yard KO return at the end of the first half to set up the FG to regain the lead. Otherwise KO returns were pedestrian. I think we only had Golden back as the lone returned. Didn't help blocking much.

Overall solid but some miscues. The potential to be as good or better than last year is there, only 14 games to go (tic).
 

awbuzz

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The 34 yd returned is the one CPJ will be giving the team heck about. The last 14 yds or show werre after he' been hit and no one wrapped him up.
 

GTNavyNuke

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That was early in the game. I kind of think that it was the first time we played this year where the other team really ran hard after contact. That is where a lot of injuries can occur. We'll see. The answer is to put it in the stands. But CPJ should give them h*ll.

One other good thing I forgot was Milton's blocking of the extra point.
 

wingsrlevel

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Jamal looked below average today on ST and D. I listened to his post game and he said"not making excuses but he hit me early" when talking about the fumbled punt. The replay clearly showed he just misplayed the ball. I also thought he should have fair caught a ball that he let hit the ground. Still soft on D IMO. Both the saftey's don't wrap up when making a tackle. Wouldn't be suprised to see Smith starting soon.
 

thwgjacket

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Jamal looked below average today on ST and D. I listened to his post game and he said"not making excuses but he hit me early" when talking about the fumbled punt. The replay clearly showed he just misplayed the ball. I also thought he should have fair caught a ball that he let hit the ground. Still soft on D IMO. Both the saftey's don't wrap up when making a tackle. Wouldn't be suprised to see Smith starting soon.
Yea dude just had a 50 yard return that set up a score right before half and he only returned that ball he let drop 40 yards before it was called back by a late penalty. Extremely below average. Oh and Butker was literally kicking it into the stands on kick offs. Well below average stuff.
 

wingsrlevel

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He did have a nice return....doesn't elimanate the fact that he fumbled the ball that he should have fair caught. We don't need heros ,we need everyone to do their job. His job on that play was to fair catch it.
 
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