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MSU Positional Breakdown: Special Teams

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MSU has proven players at both kicking spots, but continues to search for explosiveness in the return game.

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

Last season was an interesting one for the Michigan State special teams. The team once again got consistent place kicking from Matt Coghlin, who connected on almost 82% of his field goal attempts and all of his extra points. However, the punting situation became a bit of a crapshoot following the injury to Jake Hartbarger in the second game of the season.

This year, the Spartans have both their kickers back and ready to go after Hartbarger was given an extra year of eligibility due to his injury.

The other aspects of special teams were also a mixed bag for the Spartans. In the return game MSU ranked 24th nationally in kickoff return average at 23.68 yards per return. However, they didn’t have very many long returns, and generally lacked any explosiveness in that area.

On punt returns, MSU ranked 97th in the country, averaging 6.17 yards per return. This was actually an improvement over the previous year where MSU was 119th overall with an average return of 3.9 yards. So, safe to say, this is an area where MSU has generally struggled. And that doesn’t even take into account the field position issues from punts that were either fair caught or let to bounce deep inside their own territory (see OSU game last year).

On the coverage side of the ball, MSU was pretty good. They checked in at 17th overall in kickoff coverage, surrendering just 17.93 yards per return. They did not allow a kickoff return TD for the first time since 2014.

On punt returns, MSU allowed 5.39 yards per return, checking in at 26th nationally. They also did not allow a punt return for TD. This is an area that MSU has been really good at the last few seasons, as they were third in the nation in punt return average in 2017 when Jake Hartbarger was allowing less than one punt return attempt per game. Hopefully, there will be more of that this year.

One final area to look at before we get to the players is kickoffs. Last year MSU had a touchback percentage of 40.68, which was 70th nationally, or about middle of the road. While that doesn’t seem like much, it was a huge improvement over 2017 when MSU was 116th in touchbacks at just 22.58 percent.

Matt Coghlin, Kicker, Junior

Mark Dantonio has been blessed with a steady stream of solid kickers during his time at MSU, and Matt Coghlin is the latest of that group. Coghlin currently ranks first in MSU history in field goal percentage at 80.5 percent, and has made all 63 of his extra point attempts. Last season he set a school record by making 18 straight field goals, dating back to his freshman season.

Coghlin was named first team All-Big Ten by the media and was one of the 20 finalists for the Lou Groza Award last year.

Oh, and how could we forget, Coghlin also had himself a rushing touchdown on a fake field goal attempt against Indiana.

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

Last year saw Coghlin connect for a career long 49 yard field goal as well, eclipsing his previous long of 46 yards as a freshman.

We all know that Coghlin has been money in his first two years at Michigan State. He had the game winner against Penn State as a freshman, and has been about as steady as you get. He is a valuable weapon and at this point I believe the coaches have confidence that anything inside of 50 yards is pretty much money in the bank.

Let’s just hope he’s kicking more extra points than field goals this year.

Jake Hartbarger, Punter, Senior

As we mentioned above, Hartbarger will be back after suffering the leg injury in the fourth quarter of the Arizona State game last year on a play that was whistled dead. It was literally a bad break for the Spartan punter.

Hartbarger comes into the season ranking seventh in school history for punting average at 42.1 yards per punt. He is tenth in career punting yards and total punts. For his career he has placed 38.2% of his punts inside the opponent’s 20 yard line, and 20.1% inside the ten.

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Arizona State Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

In 2017, Hartbarger had a stellar season, and was a big factor in flipping field position and forcing teams to have to go the length of the field against MSU’s stout defense. He averaged 42 yards per kick that year, but dropped 28 inside the 20 yard line (40.6%) and had 21 fair catches (30.4%). His 11 touchbacks were a career high, but more often than not, you were getting nothing when Hartbarger punted to you.

If he can return to form after the injury last year, Hartbarger will be a valuable weapon in the field position battle, one that MSU needs to win consistently with the type of team they have. A deep punt pinning a team back, followed by a three-and-out should set the offense up with a short field. This is a model for success for a team that has had issues sustaining drives the last few years.

Cole Hahn, Kicker, Sophomore

Hahn handled the kickoff duties for the entire season last year. It was his first year in the role as a redshirt freshman, and he was a big improvement in the department for MSU.

He averaged nearly 60 yards per kickoff for the season, and as mentioned before, had a touchback percentage a little over 40 percent. He did boot three kicks out of bounds, which wasn’t great but overall he was pretty solid.

Hahn appears to have a pretty good leg, and if he can get that touchback number up a little higher, he will be even better.

Tyler Hunt, K/P, Sophomore

Hunt walked on in 2017 and took over as the punter following Hartbarger’s injury last season. Then he was cut down for the year suffering an injury in practice before the Purdue game because that’s just how the season went last year.

Before getting hurt Hunt was averaging 40.11 yards per punt, with three punts of 50+ yards. He dropped 15 of his 36 punts inside the 20 yard line (41.7%) and had 10 fair catches.

He also made a crazy one handed grab on a bad snap in the Michigan game and then launched a 60 yarder tumbling down the field.

Bryce Baringer, Punter, Sophomore

A transfer from Illinois, Baringer walked-on last year and ended up being called into duty following the injuries to Hartbarger and Hunt.

Baringer was serviceable, but not great, averaging 32.4 yards per punt on 15 punts over four games. He had two 50 yarders and four inside the 20 yard line with five fair catches.

Barring another catastrophe, Baringer will be nothing more than depth this year.

Other Kickers on the Roster

Evan Morris, P/K, Freshman: The number 20 punting prospect nationally and top roll-out style punter according to Kohl’s Kicking Camps. He also checked in at 37th nationally in kicking at Kohl’s.

Jack Bouwmeester, Punter, Freshman: The Aussie ranked as the 6th overall punting prospect according to 247 and was a standout Cricket player back in Australia.

So there are your kickers. As for the return game, without a depth chart yet it is tough to know for sure what the plan will be for that. But we can look at some of last year’s performances.

Kickoff Returns

Connor Heyward: The Spartans leading rusher was also the leading kickoff returner for the second year in a row, logging 287 yards on 13 returns for an average of 22.08 yards per return. He had a long of 49 yards last year and his career long is 55 yards in 2017.

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

Darrell Stewart Jr: The receiver had four returns for 117 yards, averaging 29.25 yards per return. He had six returns in 2017, averaging 25.33 yards per return. His career long is 43 yards, coming last season.

Punt Returns

Cody White: The standout wideout had five returns last year for 23 yards, after having seven returns for 22 yards the previous season. His steady hands make him a favorable option but the prospect of opening him up to injuries is a concern.

Jalen Nailor: The explosive Nailor got four return attempts, but managed just 13 total yards. Like White, he was also banged up throughout the season.

Laress Nelson: Nelson had just two attempts last year for 11 yards after leading the team with 34 return yards as a freshman. He’s an option here as well, and one that might not have as big a role on offense as the other two.

Brandon Sowards: For whatever reason, the coaches settled on Sowards for a bulk of the season after everyone else got banged up. He led the team in returns with 11 and yards with 81, for an average of 7.36 yards per return. But the knock on him was his decision making deep in his own end. Preferably, they choose to go with one of the more explosive options this year.

Overall, Michigan State should be set to have one of the best kicking games in the Big Ten. Coghlin and Hartbarger are known commodities and have been very good at what they do. The coverage improved big time last year, and hopefully that will carry over again this season. If MSU can get anything going in the punt return game, the Spartan special teams will be one of the best overall units around.