Time to break down the third phase of the game for the season opener as we take a look at the matchups on special teams between Michigan State and Utah State. For the Spartans all the players are the same as last season, so there aren’t really any new faces to break down, but we will get you reacquainted with the guys anyway.
There was a change however on the sidelines, where Paul Haynes takes over as special teams coordinator, as well as secondary coach. Haynes was previously the head coach at Kent State and most of his coaching experience is as secondary coach or defensive coordinator.
Joining Haynes on the coaching staff as the special teams analyst is former NFL kicker Shayne Graham. The former All-Pro kicker was the quality control coach at CMU last year, and will work with Haynes on the day-to-day special teams operations.
Matt “McLovin” Coghlin is back for his sophomore season after a very solid freshman year that saw him convert 78.9% of his field goal attempts (15-for-19), including his last eight in a row. He was also a perfect 38-for-38 on extra points. The 15 made field goals tied an MSU freshman record held by Michael Geiger and Brett Swenson. After missing two field goals in the loss to Northwestern, Coghlin was perfect the rest of the year, including the memorable game winner against Penn State as time expired.
Coghlin was a bit of a question mark coming into last season replacing a four year starter in Geiger, but rose to the challenge. He ended up with 15 made field goals, despite attempting only three total in the first five games of the year. I expect Dantonio to have a little more faith in him and his range this year, and I expect Coghlin to once again be 75% or better on field goals.
The Aggies place kicking will be done by junior Dominik Eberle, who took over the role on a full time basis last season. He was very good as a sophomore, converting 18 of 24 attempts for a solid 75% conversion rate. He was also perfect on all 47 of his extra point attempts. Eberle was a Lou Groza award finalist and First-Team All-Mountain West last year as well as being named a Third-Team All-American by Phil Steele.
Eberle was 13-for-15 on field goals inside of 40 yards and 4-of-8 from 40-49 yards, as well as hitting a career long 52-yarder against San Jose State.
Jake Hartbarger is back for his senior season after what really was a phenomenal junior year. He averaged just under 42 yards per punt on the season, while also sticking 28 of his 69 punts inside the 20 yard line (40.6%), and 15 punts inside the ten. Hartbarger had 12 punts of 50+ yards on the year.
Most remarkably, Hartbarger allowed only 12 of his 69 punts (17.3%) to be returned, for a TOTAL of 31 yards for the entire season. He truly was an important weapon on a team that was not consistent on offense and very good on defense. As a result, MSU ranked 15th nationally in opponents average field position, with opposing teams average drive starting at their own 28 and a half yard line.
Hartbarger comes in 11th in school history in total punts and punting yards and is currently ninth in punting average. He will likely finish top five in both punts and yards, and if he raises his career average by one yard, will be top five in that as well.
Utah State also boasts a senior punter with three years of experience in Aaron Dalton. The three time Academic All-Mountain West punter averaged 42.01 yards last year on 76 total punts. He had 10 punts of 50+ yards and dropped 26 punts inside the 20 yard line. Only nine of his punts went for touchbacks while 34 of them were fair caught.
For his career Dalton is averaging 40.5 yards per punt and has 27 punts of 50 yards and has dropped 34% of his career punts inside the 20 yard line. He was named pre-season Second-Team All-Mountain West by Athlon Sports.
Michigan State has backup running back Connor Heyward listed as the starter at kick returner, with receiver Darrell Stewart as the number two. Those two were the top two players on the team last year in kick returns and yards. Heyward led the way with 20 returns for 436 yards, an average of 21.80 yards per return. Stewart had six returns for 152 yards for a 25.33 yard average.
The Spartans ranked 63rd in the country last year in kickoff return average at 21.39 yards per return. They did not have a kickoff return touchdown.
Meanwhile, Utah State was 21st in the country in kickoff return defense, allowing an average of just 18.14 yards per return, although they did allow a kick return TD. Eberle handled the kickoff duties for the Aggies and had a 52.05% touchback rate.
The Aggies have both Savon Scarver and Gerold Bright listed as starters for the kickoff return specialist. Scarver led the team last year with 26 returns for 625 yards, an average of 24.04 yards per return. He also had the team’s lone kickoff return touchdown. Bright had one return for 21 yards.
Utah State was 46th nationally in kickoff return average at 21.83 yards per return. The Spartans ranked just 71st in kickoff defense, allowing an average of 20.89 yards per return, as well as giving up a touchdown. Senior Brett Scanlon handled the kickoff duties last year but had a touchback rate of only 22.58 percent. The Spartans have a pair of red-shirt freshman listed as kickoff specialists right now in Tyler Hunt and Cole Hahn. The two will likely both get chances early in the year to improve on last year’s touchback percentage.
Cody White is listed as the Spartans punt returner heading into the season opener. White was one of three different players last year with at least six punt return attempts. He finished the year with seven returns for 22 yards, just a 3.14 yard average. Laress Nelson is listed as the number two, he tied with White for the team lead with seven returns, and averaged 4.86 yards per return. White did a better job securing the ball down the stretch last season, so that’s likely why he gets the nod to start the season.
The Spartans were one of the worst teams in the country in punt returns last year, ranking 119th with a 3.90 yard average. On the flip side, Utah State was middle of the road in punt coverage last year, allowing an average of eight yards per return.
Sophomore Jordan Nathan will handle the punt return duties for Utah State this season, after doing the bulk of the return work as a freshman last year. Nathan had 23 returns for 196 yards last year, averaging 8.52 yards per return. Utah State was 36th nationally in punt returns last year at 9.57 yards per return with one touchdown.
As mentioned above, the Spartans were one of the best in the country last year in punt coverage, allowing the third lowest return average at just 2.58 yards per return on only 12 attempts.
This is actually a pretty even matchup across the board. Both teams have experienced kickers and punters and neither really stands out when it comes to the return game, while both teams do a pretty good job coverage wise. I guess we could give the edge to Utah State since they have the Groza Award finalist at place kicker, but I don’t think this game is going to come down to special teams play so we’ll stick with the push.