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Position Preview: Special Teams

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A now-experienced special teams group could be the difference in Michigan State’s season

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Northwestern Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Special teams never gets much attention in the buildup to a season, or even a game. But there are only a few aspects of the game more criticized and memorable than the specialists. Heading into 2018, the Michigan State Spartans are bringing back almost all of their special teams stars.

Last season, Michigan State had an incredibly average special teams unit compared to the rest of the country, but one of the worst in the Big Ten, according to ESPN’s team efficiency ratings. But that sounds much worse than what it felt like during the year. Afterall, this did happen.

Key Losses: Brett Scanlon

Many of you might be thinking “who is Brett Scanlon?” Which is totally fair, and indicative of how many specialists are returning. Scanlon occasionally handled kickoffs for the Spartans, appearing in five games last season. No disrespect meant to Scanlon, but MSU should fair just fine without him in 2018.

Returning Starters: Matt Coghlin (K), Connor Heyward (KR), Darrell Stewart Jr. (KR), Jake Hartbarger (P)

The most important member of this group is Matt Coghlin. The redshirt sophomore will start his second season as the Spartans starting kicker, with the full confidence of the coaching staff. Last season, Coghlin was perfect on extra points and hit 15-19 field goals.

Coghlin’s biggest issues came late in games, with the obvious exception of the Penn State game-winner. All four of Coughlin’s missed field goals came in the second half, all in tight games. Fortunately for the Spartans, it only really hurt against Northwestern. Additionally, three of his four missed kicks came on the road.

If Coghlin can prove that he is a reliable kicker from distance, and even more importantly late in the game, Michigan State’s offense will have a crucial safety net.

The return game left a little more to be desired. Connor Heyward took the bulk of the kickoff returns, with Cody White, Laress Nelson and Darrell Stewart Jr. splitting time on punt returns. Michigan State didn’t return a single punt or kick for a touchdown and averaged fewer than five-yards per punt return. Heyward didn’t fair much better, comparatively, on kickoff returns.

Positives:

The biggest positive is obviously experience. The biggest aspects of the special teams group are all returning starters from last year.

Michigan State clearly has plenty of explosive players that could play a big role in the return game, despite the struggles last season. The ideal situation would be Heyward and Laress taking the bulk of the returns, taking some of the stress off of the starting wide receivers. However, if those two aren’t doing enough, or if White shows himself as too big of a playmaker to keep off the field, he may have to take on double-duty.

Jake Hartbarger was a strong punter for MSU, averaging 42-yards per-punt. No one ever wants to brag about their punter, but everyone would rather have a good punter than a bad one.

Negatives:

At it’s best last season, the Michigan State special teams in 2017 was mediocre. If there aren’t improvements, MSU won’t have much of a kicking game to rely upon outside of the 25-yard line. Additionally, without growth the return game won’t do much to set up the offense.

X-Factor: Time

These are all hypotheticals, of course, but it is impossible to be truly confident in the special teams to start the season. It will likely be hard to tell how much of an improvement is made until at least the end of the Indiana game. All it takes is one or two big plays to change how teams will treat MSU for the rest of the season.

This isn’t an aspect of the game that fans should rely on. But any improvement could make a huge difference.