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Position Breakdown: Special Teams

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The same old problems keep popping up for the Spartan special teams

NCAA Football: Western Michigan at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Well it only took until the second game of the season for the Michigan State special teams unit to once again find itself in the crosshairs. After a solid performance in the opener against Bowling Green, many of the issues we have seen with the Spartan special teams reared their ugly heads again last weekend against Western Michigan.

We will get into the details here in a minute but obviously the big issue was once again allowing Darius Phillips to break not only one, but two big returns AGAIN. It was nearly an identical outcome to what happened when these two teams last met two years ago in Kalamazoo. Yet somehow, the coaching staff didn’t change up or adjust their plan, despite talking all week about how good Phillips is and how important it was not to let him have return chances. There appeared to be absolutely no change in strategy coming in, and what’s worse, no change once he broke a long one.

So let’s get into it.

Kickoffs

The first kick from Brett Scanlon went for a touchback, and it was exactly the type of thing they needed to do. It was deep enough into the end zone and it made Phillips move to field it so he wasn’t able to park under it and set up. This is what MSU likely wanted on all of their kickoffs.

The next one was short, taken at the six by Phillips and brought back out to the 24 yard line. No big deal but if you aren’t going to get it to the end zone I would prefer not letting it get to Phillips at all.

Then things started to get worse. The next kick was taken at the goal line by Phillips who takes it all the way across midfield to the MSU 48, return of 52 yards. At this point you have now played with fire twice and gotten singed pretty well.

The next kick is short again, and Phillips has a decent return but it’s negated by a block in the back penalty.

And then the big one, where Phillips takes it 100 yards to the house after MSU had taken a 28-7 lead. We covered that in our film room piece earlier this week. Basically it was a complete failure in coverage by MSU, and most return men would have had a big gain on that kick, but to have that happen against someone like Darius Phillips is like handing the opposition a touchdown.

So Phillips ends up with 181 yards in kick returns on four attempts and has two that go for more than 50 yards…just like what happened against Western two years ago.

This marks the third straight year that the Spartans have allowed a kickoff return touchdown. It also happens to be the third year with Mark Snyder as special teams coach. In the previous eight seasons under Mike Tressel, MSU allowed one kickoff return touchdown. Let me say that again, in eight seasons under Mike Tressel there was ONE kickoff return touchdown. There have been three in two seasons and two games under Mark Snyder.

The fact that they continued to have Scanlon trying to kick it deep after the 52 yard return is enough of a problem, but the continued struggles in coverage needs to be addressed. This went from not being an issue, to being a big one, and it doesn’t appear to be a coincidence that the problems started after a change in the coaching staff.

Return Game

Darrell Stewart had another solid game returning kickoffs. He only got two chances, but had one return that would have set MSU up at their 43 negated by a holding penalty, and he had another for 29 yards that set the Spartans up at the 30 following the Phillips return touchdown.

On the whole Michigan State is averaging 21.25 yards per kickoff return on four attempts, right about middle of the pack nationally. Stewart’s average is slightly better at 24.33 yards per return. It’s solid, and Stewart has done a good job of getting what he can without taking any dumb risks by bringing it out when he shouldn’t.

In the punt game however, we got a look at a possible shake up as freshman Laress Nelson got a shot at a couple of returns. He was able to break a 15 yard return and displayed some nice moves while doing so. Stewart meanwhile, got just five total yards on two attempts.

Stewart hasn’t shown the same explosiveness as a punt returner that he has on kickoffs or on offense. He also showed some uncertainty when deciding whether or not to field a few punts. Those two factors have led the coaches to explore some of the other possibilities and Nelson looks like an intriguing one. I wouldn’t be surprised to see more of him as a punt returner, especially considering how much they have been using Stewart in the offense.

Punting

Jake Hartbarger had a pretty good game overall punting the ball. His total numbers weren’t eye popping, six punts for an average of 38.7 yards, but that doesn’t tell the whole story.

He had two punts that pinned Western inside their own 10, including a brilliant coffin corner kick on his first punt of the day that went out of bounds at the Bronco four yard line. He also had two punts of 44+ yards.

He had two kicks under 30 yards. One was a 24 yarder that was fair caught at the Western 20, so not great but still somewhat pins them back. The other was a 26 yard semi-shank that went out of bounds at the WMU 32 yard line. This was a clear attempt to avoid Phillips as it came right after the kickoff return touchdown.

But the most important number regarding Hartbarger’s day was zero, as in the number of punt returns Darius Phillips attempted on the day. Unlike the rest of the team, Hartbarger did his job neutralizing Phillips, while also managing to keep the Broncos in bad field position most of the day.

Through two games, Hartbarger is by far the best thing going in terms of special teams for the Spartans.

Place Kicking

One of these days Matt Coghlin is going to attempt a field goal. It just hasn’t happened yet. But he’s 9-9 now extra points so he’s got that going for him, which is nice.

Overall

As we have highlighted, special teams continues to be a problem area for MSU. The biggest issue is in the coverage game. If you want to add in punt returns, Michigan State has now given up five touchdown returns in two seasons and two games under Mark Snyder. They allowed four total in eight seasons under Mike Tressel. There is a problem here.

Luckily Jake Hartbarger has done his job and only allowed one punt return attempt in two games.

It should also be noted that of the six penalties called on Michigan State this season, three of them have come on special teams. All three were holding/block in the back related and negated returns and impacted field position.

We talked about field position before the season as an area where the Spartans were not very good last year. So far this year there hasn’t been much improvement in that area. The Spartans are starting their average drive 71.07 yards away from the end zone, or just inside their own 29 yard line. That is in the bottom third nationally. Penalties during returns only make this a bigger issue.

Bottom line is that there is a lot to work on as the team moves forward on special teams. So far the other two phases are quite a bit ahead of this one. But the schedule is about to get tougher and the games likely to be closer, and that is when special teams can make the difference between winning and losing.