2018 NFL Draft

Regular Season in Review: Special teams a source of struggle for Auburn

Daniel Carlson honestly didn’t know what happened on his 31-yard field goal attempt early in the third quarter of the SEC Championship game last Saturday.

The snap was high, but Tyler Stovall’s hold was good. By the time Carlson turned his eyes toward the uprights, though, his game-tying kick was headed in the wrong direction, having been blocked by DaQuan Hawkins-Muckle and recovered by Dominick Sanders.

Had the kick not been blocked, it might have tied Auburn and Georgia at 10 points apiece. Instead, the Tigers didn’t score again in a 28-7 loss.

“It’s obviously unfortunate, especially with the timing,” Carlson said in the locker room after the game. “It was a close game at the time, so we just need to clean that up. But it is what it is.”

The field goal was the third Auburn had blocked during the 2017 season, which tied the team with Old Dominion for the FBS lead in a category nobody wants to be at the top of. A month earlier, Carlson had two kicks blocked on the road at Texas A&M in similar fashion.

The star placekicker missed a career-high seven kicks during his senior campaign, with three of them being blocked. It might have cost him a shot to win the Lou Groza Award, which he finished as a runner-up for on Thursday for the third consecutive season.

It wasn’t just blocked field goals that gave Auburn trouble in 2017, either. The entire special teams unit — coordinated by running backs coach Tim Horton this year after being run by former tight ends coach Scott Fountain the four years prior — was an issue throughout the season.

There were two notable moments outside of the blocked kicks, and they came in back-to-back weeks: Auburn surrendered a 75-yard punt return touchdown to DJ Chark in a loss at LSU on Oct. 14, and a 100-yard kick return touchdown to De’Vion Warren during a win at Arkansas a week later.

But those returns weren’t anomalies. Auburn finished the regular season ranked 112th nationally allowing 12.4 yards per punt return and dead last allowing 28.1 yards per kickoff return — nearly 2 yards more than the next-worst team.

It didn’t help that Carlson’s touchback rate was significantly lower this season (72.4 percent) than it was last season (79.1 percent). Aidan Marshall and Ian Shannon also averaged nearly 3 less yards per punt (39.5) than Kevin Phillips did a year ago (42.3).

“We’ve got to solve that,” head coach Gus Malzahn said prior to the SEC Championship. “We’ve been talking about it a couple weeks now.”

Auburn didn’t solve it in Atlanta, and it’s possible the unit will need a complete overhaul heading into the Jan. 1 Peach Bowl against UCF entering the 2018 season.

Josh Vitale is the Auburn beat writer for the Opelika-Auburn News. You can follow him on Twitter at @AUBlog. To reach him by email, click here.

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