EAST LANSING, MI - NOVEMBER 19: Brad Sonntag #81 and Dan Conroy #4 of the Michigan State Spartans watch as Conroy's field goal sails through the goal posts during the first quarter of the game against the Indiana Hoosiers at Spartan Stadium on November 19, 2011 in East Lansing, Michigan. The Spartans defeated the Hoosiers 55-3. (Photo by Mark A. Cunningham/Getty Images)
WHAT HAPPENED LAST YEAR:
Last season began with a few players having uncharacteristic cases of the yips. Dan Conroy missed a field goal from within 30 yards in each of his first two games. Keshawn Martin fumbled a punt in the season opener. Mike Sadler had a punt blocked against Central Michigan. These miscues were frustrating to be sure, but the peak of frustration came against Notre Dame in the first half, when MSU not only allowed the Fighting Irish to return a kickoff for a score, but also called one of the most obvious fake field goals of all time. There's a reason why "Little Giants 2" was never made.
Once conference play started however, the special teams reverted back to their usual excellence. Nick Hill became a weapon on kick returns, his 26.3 yard per kickoff average ranking 16th in the nation. Dan Conroy went 15-19 on field goals the rest of the year, with all four misses coming from 49 yards or greater. Mike Sadler had a very good first season replacing Aaron Bates: out of his 54 punts that weren't touchbacks, only 13 were returned and 25 were inside the 20. On the other side of the ball, no kicks were returned for touchdowns after the Notre Dame game, and the defense blocked five kicks. I'm just going to gloss over the running into the kicker penalty in the Big Ten Championship Game. Now excuse me while I sigh really, really hard.
The unit came through in overtime of the Outback Bowl. With a combination of clutch kicking by Conroy, Mark Richt's risk aversion fetish, and Anthony Rashad White providing the last touch of the football for MSU in the season, the Spartans won their first bowl game in a decade. Despite some hiccups, the unit really coalesced after the first four weeks.
THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH ON SPECIAL TEAMS:
1. Nick Hill, kick and punt returner. As I said earlier, Hill was great on kick returns last season. On the five punt returns Hill had last season he averaged 3.4 yards. This average means one of two things: That Hill is more of a straight-line runner and is ill-suited for punt returns (unlikely), or he's a victim of a small sample size (bingo). I'm thinking that he parlays his kick return skills into a few great punt returns during the season, thus earning him the nickname Nick "The Thrill" Hill. If he decides the hustle-bustle of being a football player is too much and decides to start a new life farming and canning cucumbers, he will earn the nickname Nick "The Dill" Hill.
2. Taybor Pepper, long snapper. For the most part this offseason was quiet, but the one position that had the most turnover on the team was at long snapper. Matt Giampapa transferred to Tennessee, and Steve Moore was forced to retire from football after suffering a neck injury jumping from a boat (thankfully, he's ok). That leaves true freshman Pepper, at 6'4" and 185 pounds, to get the ball to Conroy and Sadler. Pepper was ranked as the #7 long snapper in his class by Rubio Long Snapping, and the site had this to say:
His form is exceptional and he just might have the fastest snap speed in the country. Timed him all day and I would say his slowest ball with me was mid .7. Please note: I said slowest. He is extremely long and uses his length very well. Has the frame to put on 50 lbs...easily. Couple fine things to fine tune, but overall, he is ready now.
I do not know what some of those things mean, but I assume they are good. The biggest intangible will see how Pepper performs at game speed. He's got a big job to do early, hopefully the hiccups are few and far between.
3. Dan Conroy, kicker. The only other new players on special teams besides the kickoff coverage units will be the two holders, Mike Sadler and QB Connor Cook, listed with an "OR" on the depth chart currently. Since I don't have anything worthwhile to say about the holders, I'll stick with Conroy. After a 2010 campaign in which he missed only one field goal, Conroy missed 2 from within the 30 start the season. Although 15-21 would be a good 2011 for most kickers, it was a slight decline from Conroy's excellent accuracy the season before.
THIS UNIT WILL BE SUCCESSFUL IF: It can be consistent. With the exception of Pepper and the holders, all of the special teams players have not only experience, but good experience at that (Hill's punt returns not withstanding, but he'll get there). The main problem will be getting the ball to the kicker and punter; if that can be done without incident repeatedly, it'll be another great season for the Spartan special teams.
Also, there's a reason why I haven't talked about Mike Sadler much -- I think he's only going to get better. I'm not concerned about him in the slightest.
PROBLEMS THAT COULD ARISE:
Three stand out to me:
- Pepper has a rough time adjusting to the college game, and several off-target snaps turned into missed field goals, blocked punts, and touchdowns for the other team. Oy.
- The unit has a repeat of last year's slow start, and missed field goals and fumbles abound in the Boise game. Double Oy.
- The punt and field goal block units fail to heed the lessons of last year and barrel straight into the kicker and/or punter, prolonging opponent drives. Triple Oy.
WHAT WILL HAPPEN.
On the surface, there's not much to worry about. The only "skill" player special teams lost last year was Keshawn Martin, and by later in the season Hill may have been the better kick (not punt) returner. That said, there are concerns. Pepper's a true freshman, and the holder role once filled by Brad Sonntag will also have a replacement (the aforementioned Sadler or Cook). The kicks will look a bit dicey until Pepper settles in; however all should be well come the time for conference play.
From there on out, the special teams unit will be very good, bordering on exceptional, as once the first few games were behind them they were nearly flawless. Barring another slow start, I expect nothing but solid play throughout the season.