LSU brings improved special teams to Auburn
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — The last two times LSU and Auburn met, special teams figured prominently.
Now 12th-ranked LSU is hoping noticeable improvements in its kicking game can tip the balance at No. 7 Auburn on Saturday.
New kicker Cole Tracy, a graduate transfer from Division II Assumption College, already has booted two field goals of 50 yards or more and has yet to miss any of his five attempts. Avery Atkins, a freshman walk-on from Auburn High School in Alabama, has recorded touchbacks on 11 of 13 kickoffs.
Zach Von Rosenberg, a 27-year former professional baseball player who took over as punter early last season, is averaging 45.1 yards on nine punts in the first two games. Six of his punts have produced a fair catch.
Coach Ed Orgeron credits first-year special teams coach Greg McMahon, who was previously an assistant with the New Orleans Saints from 2006-16, mostly as special teams coordinator.
“Mac did a tremendous job,” Orgeron said this week.
In a 27-23 victory in the series last year, LSU overcame a 20-point deficit with the help of a 75-yard punt return by then-returner D.J. Chark and two field goals by former kicker Connor Culp.
When the teams met in Auburn in 2016, Auburn didn’t score a touchdown but was lifted to an 18-13 victory by Daniel Carlson’s six field goals.
Both teams enter this season’s matchup with strong defenses, which only further raises the prospects more special teams snaps — and perhaps more field goal opportunities.
Tracy had an impressive debut with four field goals against Miami, including a school-tying 54-yarder. Kicking at AT&T Stadium instead of Assumption’s 1,200-seat facility was no problem for Tracy.
“I didn’t see a huge difference,” Tracy said. “Obviously, the amount of people was different. But, I just focus on my routine. I pride myself on my technique. I want to be calm and consistent.”
In any event, his performance has represented an improvement so far over the combined efforts of Culp and Jack Gonsoulin last year. Combined, they were 16-of-27.
Auburn also has had some turnover in the kicking game. Punter Aidan Marshall, who started part of last season and this season’s opener against Washington, has left the team. Newcomer Arynn Siposs, a former Australian Rules Football player, is taking over.
We feel very good about Arryn — feel like he’s done a good job,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said.
LSU had no dedicated special teams coach. Orgeron instead had a couple of positional coaches divide up responsibilities for managing that unit. He also hired McMahon as a consultant, but that designation meant McMahon could not have direct contact with players. Orgeron made McMahon a full member of the staff this year, and players say it has made a difference.
“It was tough last year on coach McMahon and it was tough on the players,” fourth-year junior long snapper Blake Ferguson said. “When somebody messed up, coach McMahon hoped another coach was able to communicate that.
“Now, coach McMahon is even better because he can be hands-on. He’s been in this game for long time. We learn something new every day, Ferguson said. “Coach McMahon wanted to change the culture in the special teams room. I am proud of how far we have come in our room just since last year. The culture is great now.”
Orgeron also has credited McMahon for going out and finding Atkins to be the kickoff specialist, luring him away from opportunities to play college soccer.
Ferguson said have been struck by Atkins’ maturity and production.
“Consistently having the other team starting at its 25 instead of the 40 is big,” Ferguson said. “That’s another one or two first downs they have to get and our defense is pretty stout.”