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MSU will need to improve on special teams in 2017

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The Spartans lost the battle of field position last year, and must “find the inches” this time around.

NCAA Football: Big Ten Championship-Iowa vs Michigan State Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

While the bulk of the headlines for this fall camp will center on the offensive and defensive sides of the ball, one area that needs to be remembered is special teams. This is an area that has really been an issue for Michigan State over the last couple of seasons. And while not quite of the same level of importance as developing a new quarterback or finding an effective pass rush, special teams can play a big role for a team, especially one with minimal margin for error.

So let’s dive into some of the special team’s stats from the last couple of seasons to see what the impact has been and where it needs to improve.

Let’s start with something really simple and basic, kickoffs. That’s how the game begins, so that’s where we will too.

Last year MSU ranked 101st in kickoff distance, averaging 59.24 yards per kick. That means, on average, the opposing team is fielding the kickoff just inside the six yard-line. Despite this low average, MSU did manage to rank middle of the pack in touchback percentage, checking in at 37.10%, good for 62nd nationally. Still, that isn’t a great number at all, considering the top 35 teams all had a better than 50% touchback rate.

The Spartans also kicked SIX kickoffs out of bounds, the fourth most in the country. That was in just 12 games mind you, so every other game, they had a kickoff go out of bounds. Out of bounds kicks represented 9.7% of their total kickoffs last year. That means on almost 10% of MSU’s kickoffs, the other team got to start at their 35 yard-line.

So, about half of the Spartan kickoffs last year were returnable, with the other team fielding it minimally around the six yard-line on average. That number is likely higher when you take into account the touchbacks.

So how did they do at defending returns? Not great. MSU ranked 88th nationally allowing an average of 21.87 yards per return. So, just using the pure averages, that puts the opponent around their own 28 yard-line to start a post-kickoff possession following a return.

The Spartans also allowed a kickoff return for a touchdown, their second in as many years. They had only allowed one kickoff returns for TD under Dantonio before then.

This isn’t brutally bad, but it’s also not very good. What it shows is that opponents were very rarely starting a drive pinned in deep following a kickoff. This all plays into the field position game, which we will touch on more in a minute.

Now let’s flip it and look at how MSU with kickoffs. Last year, the Spartans averaged 20.70 yards per kickoff return, middle of the road at 67th overall. Not great, not terrible. Unfortunately, opposing teams had the eighth best kickoff average nationally against MSU, at 62.44 yards. That averages out to MSU starting drives, on average, inside their own 24 yard-line. Throw in a 47.62% opponent touchback percentage and it looks like MSU is likely starting their post-kickoff drives inside the 25 on most occasions.

NCAA Football: Michigan at Michigan State
RJ Shelton is gone, leaving an opportunity for someone to step up.
Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

This is even more certain when you see that MSU had just TWO kickoff returns over 30 yards. That tied for second fewest. Two returns in 30 chances last year went for more than 30 yards. R.J. Shelton did the bulk of that work, with 21 of the 30 returns.

Now on to the punting game. Jake Hartbarger returns for his third season this year, after averaging 40.94 yards per punt last season, ranking him 73rd nationally. That was down from his first season, where he averaged 42.70 yards per kick. He placed 37% of his punts inside the 20 yard-line and 20.4% inside the 10 according to his MSU bio. Just under 30% of Hartbarger’s punts were returned.

MSU was much better on punt returns than kickoff returns, ranking 34th nationally with an average of 5.44 yards per punt return. Only one return last year went for more than 20 yards and none longer than forty.

As for the Spartan return game, once again, it’s not great. They checked in at 81st nationally, with a 6.95 yard average. They had only one return of more than 20 yards, and none that were 30 or more. Sophomore Brandon Sowards had the most return chances with 15, and averaged 6.27 yards per return. He is among the players competing for the spot this year.

What all this works into is a general field position problem for Michigan State. Generally speaking, they were starting with longer fields on offense, and shorter fields on defense. This is made clear when you look at the overall starting field position numbers.

Michigan State’s average starting field position was 70.23 yards away from the end zone. Their opponents averaging starting field positon was 68.29 yards away. That is only a two yard difference, but both numbers are worse than the national average. In the case of MSU’s starting field position, it is in the bottom third, at 93 overall.

Every little bit counts, especially when you don’t have a large margin for error, and the Spartans didn’t last year, and likely won’t have a much more this year. They got next to nothing out of their return game and not nearly enough out of their special teams in terms of pinning teams in deep in an attempt to flip field position.

The defense is obviously also plays a role in the field position battle. Even if you do drop a punt inside the 20 or the 10 yard-line, you still need to hold the other team there.

Outside of Hartbarger, most of the names on special teams will be new. Senior Kevin Cronin handled all but one of the kickoffs last year, so that spot is open for the taking. As are both return jobs, with the aforementioned Sowards and Darrell Stewart the only ones on the roster who had any kind of return last year.

MSU needs someone to step up in each of these spots and improve upon last year’s performance. Special teams may not be the most glamourous phase of the game, but every Spartan fan should be well aware of how important they are, and the spark they can provide. Think back to some of the biggest plays of the Dantonio era. How many of those were special team’s plays? Aaron Bates, Jalen Watts-Jackson, Mike Sadler, Michael Geiger. These names are famous among Spartans because of special teams. It is now time for the next generation of special teams heroes to step up.