SEC Football: Ranking the top special teams units for 2017

As all college football fans know, in many cases, special teams can determine the outcome of a football game. Here’s a ranking of SEC football’s best units.

In the opening game of 2016, South Carolina defeated Vanderbilt 13-10 on a 55-yard field goal by kicker Elliott Fry. In a different case, Vanderbilt gained a huge confidence swing when kick returner Darrius Sims opened the team’s game against Georgia with a 95-yard return that resulted in a Ralph Webb touchdown. Vanderbilt narrowly won the game, 17-16.

In 2017, some SEC teams will bring seasoned, reliable kickers, while other teams will break in kickers with absolutely no previous college experience.

Punters, while vastly underappreciated, play an impact in a team’s field position. Having punters like Alabama’s JK Scott and Tennessee’s Trevor Daniel can help a team pin the opponent into unpleasant territory, giving the defense a strategic advantage.

Having an electric kickoff returner or punt returner can help in terms of field position as well. Johnathon Johnson posted impressive numbers on punt returns and scored on a 54-yard touchdown.

What follows is a ranking of each SEC team’s special teams unit. Bear in mind these rankings are highly subjective. There are so many elements of a special teams unit: kicker, punter, punt returner, multiple kick returners and even a long snapper (although, long snappers weren’t assessed here). Pertaining to the kicker position, it is quite common to see schools use one kicker to handle kickoffs and one kicker to handle place kicking (field goals and extra points).

That said, the goal is to show the relative strengths and weaknesses of each team’s special teams unit. Let’s take a closer look.

Oct 29, 2016; Starkville, MS, USA; Mississippi State Bulldogs wide receiver Keith Mixon (23) gets away from Samford Bulldogs defensive back Omari Williams (12) at Davis Wade Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

14. Mississippi State Bulldogs

Mississippi State has a lot of turnover on special teams. Primary kickoff returner Brandon Holloway and punt returner Fred Ross graduated. Kicker Westin Graves left football due to serious injuries. The team does return Logan Cooke at punter.

Cooke had a respectable 40-yard per punt average. Cooke’s best game in 2016 was against South Carolina where he kicked a season-best 68-yard punt and averaged 49.5 yard per punt.

While Brandon Holloway was the team’s primary kickoff returner, wide receiver Keith Mixon and wide receiver Malik Dear fielded enough kickoffs to be capable of stepping into the role. Mixon was significantly better in the role in 2016.

Donald Gray fielded two punt returns last season as a backup and should receive a chance to be the team’s primary punt returner in 2017.

At kicker, there are several options, although incoming freshman Tucker Day is the frontrunner. Sophomore Brad Wall and redshirt freshman Jace Christmann struggled mightily at the annual spring game.

Nov 12, 2016; Fayetteville, AR, USA; Arkansas Razorbacks wide receiver Jared Cornelius (1) runs the ball as tight end Grayson Gunter (89) blocks during the second quarter of the game against LSU Tigers at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brett Rojo-USA TODAY Sports

13. Arkansas Razorbacks

Arkansas has an unremarkable special teams unit. Jared Cornelius is an above-average punt returner and should return as the primary punt returner for 2017.

Wide receiver Deon Stewart returned 21 kickoffs in 2016. He averaged about 20 yards per kickoff, a decent but unspectacular figure. Running back T. J. Hammonds could get a crack at returning kickoffs, too.

Cole Hedlund is the frontrunner to take over as kicker after receiving limited opportunities last season. He made 5-of-7 field goal attempts and was perfect on extra point attempts. Connor Limpert handled kickoff duties in 2016 and figures to receive a chance at winning the same role in 2017.

The Razorbacks will miss punter Toby Baker who averaged 44.4 yards per punt. Blake Johnson punted twice over the course of the season and did well in such limited duty. Limpert is another option for the punter position, although Johnson is considered the favorite.

Sep 10, 2016; Columbia, MO, USA; Missouri Tigers wide receiver Johnathon Johnson (12) returns a kick during the first half against the Eastern Michigan Eagles at Faurot Field. Missouri won 61-21. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

12. Missouri Tigers

Missouri had mixed results on special teams in 2016.

Kicker Tucker McCann only made 6-of-12 field goals and missed four extra points. McCann had strong numbers in terms of handling kickoff duties, as 65.6 percent of his kickoffs went for touchbacks. Place kicker is a big question mark heading into the 2017 season.

On the other hand, punter Corey Fatony had a strong season, averaging 43.9 yards per punt. Fatony had his strongest game against Georgia, averaging 50.4 yards per punt and netting a long punt of 60 yards.

Wide receiver Johnathon Johnson was also a strength for the special teams unit, scoring a 54-yard punt return and finishing the season with a 14-yard per punt average.

Alex Ross was the team’s primary kickoff returner, although Johnson received 10 kickoff returns, along with wide receiver Damarea Crockett. Johnson and Crockett will likely be the two primary kickoff returners in 2017.

Sep 19, 2015; Nashville, TN, USA; Vanderbilt Commodores place kicker Tommy Openshaw (17) kicks an extra point against the Austin Peay Governors during the second half at Vanderbilt Stadium. Vanderbilt won 47-7. Mandatory Credit: Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

11. Vanderbilt Commodores

Vanderbilt improved across the board in special teams last season, although the outlook for 2017 isn’t all positive. Plus, while the team improved, the Commodores still weren’t great on special teams. Losing kick returner Darrius Sims is a huge loss. Sims returned a kickoff 95 yards to open the game against Georgia, a huge win for the Commodores.

Wide receiver C. J. Duncan was the team’s secondary option as a kickoff returner in 2016. His yards-per-kickoff wasn’t particularly impressive. Running back Ralph Webb only received two kickoffs but had a much better average.

Expect Kalija Lipscomb to lock down the punt returner duties after fielding a team-high 10 punt returns in 2016.

Tommy Openshaw excelled at kicker, hitting 15-of-19 field goal attempts.

Punter Sam Loy returns, although his freshman season wasn’t spectacular. Loy averaged 36.5 yards per punt, which was well below the bottom half of the FBS.

Sep 10, 2016; Baton Rouge, LA, USA; LSU Tigers defensive back Donte Jackson (1) carries the ball agains the Jacksonville State Gamecocks during the second half at Tiger Stadium. LSU defeated Jacksonville State 34-13. Mandatory Credit: Crystal LoGiudice-USA TODAY Sports

10. LSU Tigers

LSU faces a tricky position at place kicker with redshirt freshman Connor Culp considered the frontrunner but sophomore Jack Gonsoulin a strong possibility. Gonsoulin kicked an extra point and handled four kickoffs, but Culp is the more highly touted prospect, a three-star recruit.

Senior Cameron Gamble returns to handle kickoff duties.

Punter Josh Growden, another by-product of Les Miles’ penchant for Australian-style football, averaged 41.4 yards per punt in 2016.

Running back Derrius Guice and defensive back Donte Jackson were the team’s primary kickoff returners in 2016 and should return in the same roles in 2017. Jackson posted a team-best 23.4 yards per kickoff.

Defensive back Tre’Davious White was the team’s sole punt returner in 2016. Jackson seems the most likely option to replace White at the position. White’s 7.8 yard per punt average shouldn’t be difficult to replace, although he did score a touchdown on one 60-yard punt return.

Sep 5, 2015; Houston, TX, USA; Texas A&M Aggies kick returner Christian Kirk (3) returns a punt for a 79 yard touchdown against Arizona State Sun Devils in the second quarter at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

9. Texas A&M Aggies

The Aggies have the SEC’s best punt returner in Christian Kirk. Kirk has an impressive 23-yard average per punt and five touchdowns.

One of Texas A&M’s running backs Keith Ford or Trayveon Williams will likely fill the role of kickoff returner. Both received limited opportunities last season. Ford had a slightly better average.

Kicker Daniel LaCamera only made 17-of-24 field goals last season, four of them in close range (39 yards or closer).

Punter Shane Tripucka enjoyed a strong overall season, averaging 42.9 yards per punt.

However, Tripucka seemed to play down to inferior competition. Two of his three worst punting games of the season came against Prairie View and UT-San Antonio. His 36-yard per punt average in the team’s bowl game against Kansas State was his worst game of the season and especially hurt in a close 33-28 loss. Probably his best game of the season was an opening win against UCLA, in which Tripucka had his longest punt of the season (59 yards) and his second longest average (47.3 yards).

Oct 29, 2016; Columbia, SC, USA; South Carolina Gamecocks wide receiver Deebo Samuel (1) looks for room to run as South Carolina Gamecocks running back Rico Dowdle (23) blocks against the Tennessee Volunteers in the second half at Williams-Brice Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

8. South Carolina Gamecocks

South Carolina is in a difficult position when it comes to special teams. The program must replace South Carolina’s all-time leading scorer Elliott Fry and last season’s starting punter Sean Kelly.

The Gamecocks will try to replace Fry with redshirt freshman walk-on Alex Woznick. Woznick had respectable numbers in high school, connecting on 11-of-15 field goal attempts, but kicking in the SEC will be an adjustment and he has big shoes to fill.

Kelly finished his South Carolina career with an average of 43.3 yards per punt. However, special teams coach Coleman Hutzler has spoken highly of the program’s only scholarship kicker Joseph Charlton. Charlton could be both the team’s starting punter and handle kickoff duties, while Woznick focuses solely on place kicking.

South Carolina returns one of the most electric kick returners in the conference in Deebo Samuel.

Punt returner is more of a question mark. The team tried Rashad Fenton, Hayden Hurst, Chris Lammons and others last season. Expect to see four-star freshman Jamyest Williams given a chance to land the starting job.

Apr 22, 2017; Athens, GA, USA; Georgia Bulldogs black team wide receiver Terry Godwin (5) runs against the red team after a catch during the second half during the Georgia Spring Game at Sanford Stadium. Red defeated Black 25-22. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

7. Georgia Bulldogs

Georgia faces multiple question marks on special teams.

Last season’s kicker Rodrigo Blankenship had a very public spat for not receiving a scholarship. The threat of possibly losing Blankenship prompted head coach Kirby Smart to bring in Wofford transfer David Marvin, who has three years’ experience kicking at the FCS level. Marvin finished his Wofford career with the most field goals in school history. One strong potential scenario is Georgia begins the season with Blankenship attempting field goals of 40 yards or less and Marvin attempting long-range field goals and handling kickoff duties.

Smart also reeled in a transfer at the punter position. Last season’s starter, Marshall Long, required offseason surgery on his knee. After averaging 46.5 yards per punt in high school, Long’s transition to college was only so-so. He averaged 38.7 yards per punt in 2016. Nizialek averaged 44.8 yards per punt at Columbia, which, admittedly, is quite different from kicking for Georgia in the SEC. It’s difficult to say who will win the job, but Long, if healthy, has more experience in the program, and thus, seems the more likely choice.

As for kick and punt returners, Georgia is left with a gaping hole because Isaiah McKenzie was selected by the Broncos in the NFL Draft and Reggie Davis graduated.

Incoming freshman D’Andre Swift will probably be used sparingly as a running back with Nick Chubb and Sony Michel ahead of him on the depth chart. That said, getting a limited number of carries and helping the team with return duties might be the perfect way to break the true freshman in to the program.

One possible scenario is Swift and Terry Godwin serve as the team’s primary kickoff returners, while Mecole Hardman serves as the team’s primary punt returner. Hardman is quite possibly the best athlete Georgia has had since Champ Bailey.

Oct 29, 2016; Columbia, MO, USA; Kentucky Wildcats kicker Austin MacGinnis (99) kicks the point after touchdown during the second half against the Missouri Tigers at Faurot Field. Kentucky won 35-21. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

6. Kentucky Wildcats

Kentucky kicker Austin MacGinnis is one of the better kickers in the SEC. MacGinnis helped Kentucky win two games in 2016. The Wildcats defeated Mississippi State 40-38 and in the game, MacGinnis hit 4-of-5 field goals. MacGinnis made four attempts from 30 yards or longer. He made 2-of-2 field goals in a 41-38 win against in-state rival Louisville.

Punter Grant McKinniss had an underwhelming freshman season, averaging 39.2 yards per punt. The Wildcats received a transfer from Columbia, Matthew Panton. Panton is an Australian-style kicker/punter. He has a legitimate chance to push McKinniss for the starting job.

Running back Sihiem King is the most experienced returning player for kickoff returns. He averaged 21.3 yards per kickoff in 2016.

Wide receiver Charles Walker handled punt return duties in 2016 and did reasonably well, averaging 7.8 yards per punt. He returned one punt 65 yards for a touchdown against New Mexico State.

Sep 26, 2015; Oxford, MS, USA; Mississippi Rebels place kicker Gary Wunderlich (97) kicks the ball against the Vanderbilt Commodores at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

5. Ole Miss Volunteers

Ole Miss is in a good place on special teams mainly because kicker Gary Wunderlich is returning for his senior season. Wunderlich is fresh off a third-team All-American season while succeeding on 22-of-23 field goal attempts.

Nathan Noble graduated, so Wunderlich will probably handle both place kicking and kickoff duties. Will Gleeson, who split punting duties with Wunderlich, will probably take over as the sole punter. He averaged 44.1 yards per punt.

Ole Miss must replace Carlos Davis both at kick and punt returner. While Van Jefferson’s numbers weren’t as strong as Davis’, he has experience and traits to step in as punt returner.

Zedrick Woods fielded a kickoff return in 2016 and returned it for 26 yards. It’s a limited sample, but Woods could be one of two options for kickoff returns, while Jefferson might slot in as the secondary kickoff returner.

Oct 10, 2015; Knoxville, TN, USA; Tennessee Volunteers punter Trevor Daniel (93) punts during the second half against the Georgia Bulldogs at Neyland Stadium. Tennessee won 38-31. Mandatory Credit: Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

4. Tennessee Volunteers

Tennessee has a special teams unit that is neither spectacular nor a liability. Senior kicker Aaron Medley had an amazing freshman season but hasn’t been as good the past two seasons. He was 11-of-16 on field goal attempts in 2016.

Trevor Daniel is one of the better punters in the SEC. He averaged 44.6 yard per punt in 2016. Tennessee finished at the top of the league in field position, partly due to Daniel pinning opponents inside their own 20 a total of 28 times.

Another big reason for Tennessee’s excellent field position in 2016 is kick returner Evan Berry. Berry tied the school record in 2016 with his fourth kickoff returned for a touchdown. Berry suffered a season-ending injury in November and is expected back for the start of this season.

The Vols will have to replace Alvin Kamara as the team’s primary punt returner. Wide receiver Tyler Byrd is one of the fastest players on the roster and did well in a limited number of kick return opportunities.

Dec 31, 2016; Atlanta, GA, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide punter JK Scott (15) kicks the ball during the third quarter in the 2016 CFP Semifinal against the Washington Huskies at the Georgia Dome. Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

3. Alabama Crimson Tide

Alabama has the best punter in the SEC in JK Scott. Scott earned first-team All-SEC honors in 2016 after averaging 47.2 yards per punt, ranking third in the nation. Scott’s punts travelled 50 yards or more 39 percent of the time.

The Crimson Tide faces more uncertainty at kicker, where freshman Joseph Bulovas is the strong favorite to win the job. Bulovas has an impressive high school resume and a three-star rating to accompany it, but kicking at Alabama will be vastly different.

Trevon Diggs took over the punt returner duties last season after Eddie Jackson suffered a season-ending injury. He didn’t excel in the role, but he did excel at kick returner.

Expect Diggs and B.J. Emmons to be the team’s primary kick returners. Xavian Marks had less than half the opportunities afforded to Diggs, but he posted a 21-yard average on punt returns. Expect Marks to be given a shot at earning the primary punt returner spot.

Nov 19, 2016; Auburn, AL, USA; Auburn Tigers place kicker Daniel Carlson (38) kicks a point after during the second quarter against the Alabama A&M Bulldogs at Jordan Hare Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

2. Auburn Tigers

Auburn has the best kicker in the SEC and quite possibly the best in the nation. Having already etched a place in the Auburn record books (currently second in scoring and points kicking), Carlson earned All-American second team honors in 2016. For a second time, he was a Lou Groza finalist, the award given to the nation’s best kicker.

Last season’s backup punter and backup kicker Ian Shannon appears to be the strong favorite for the starting punting job this season. He punted against Texas A&M and should be a reasonable replacement for Kevin Phillips.

Kerryon Johnson will likely be the primary kickoff returner. Johnson’s career 25-yard return average is seventh-best in Auburn history.

Don’t be surprised if former quarterback John Franklin III earns the opportunity to show off his speed as the team’s punt returner. Reserve running back Kam Martin will also compete for touches as both a kick and punt returner.

Jan 2, 2017; Tampa , FL, USA; Florida Gators place kicker Eddy Pineiro (15) kicks a field goal in the second half as Florida Gators punter Johnny Townsend (19) holds against the Iowa Hawkeyes at Raymond James Stadium. Florida Gators won 30-3. Mandatory Credit: Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports

1. Florida Gators

Kicker Eddy Pineiro and punter Johnny Townsend are the best special teams players in the SEC outside the state of Alabama.

Pineiro probably has the strongest leg in the league, having led FBS with a net 64.8 yard average on kickoffs.

Townsend was an All-SEC second team selection and one can make a compelling argument he is the best punter in the SEC based on his FBS-leading 47.9-yard average. Together, Pineiro and Townsend make up the best combo in the SEC.

Florida does not look especially strong at kick returner or punt returner. Antonio Callaway is a solid wide receiver and outstanding athlete. However, he struggled to hold on to the ball as a punt returner in 2016. Also, Brandon Powell excels at wide receiver but averaged unimpressive numbers as a kick returner. Callaway returned a kickoff for a touchdown against Missouri, so maybe head coach Jim McElwain will use him exclusively as a kick returner.

Do not be surprised if McElwain uses Kadarius Toney as the team’s punt returner. While most expect either incoming transfer Malik Zaire or redshirt Freshman Feleipe Franks to win the starting quarterback job, Toney earned buzz at the spring game and may see time as a Wildcat quarterback.

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