It is the start of a new season for MSU football, but on special teams, most of the faces are very familiar. The Spartans return a lot of experience at all their kicking spots, but the return game has a bit of a different look to it, which is probably a good thing. Let’s get right into it.
Matt Coghlin returns for his junior season already as one of the most accomplished kickers in MSU history. He has both the best field goal (80.5) and PAT (100) percentages in school history, as well as holding the mark for most consecutive field goals made at eighteen.
Coghlin was named first-team All-Big Ten by the media last year after going 18-for-22 on field goals and 25-for-25 on extra points. He also scored a rushing touchdown on a fake field goal against Indiana which earned him Big Ten Player of the Week honors.
Coghlin has a career long field goal of 49 yards, which he kicked last year. He has kicked in good conditions, and in terrible conditions. He is about as steady as they come at the position and isn’t afraid to make a kick in a big spot. A lot of teams around the country have question marks at kicker, the Spartans are not one of them.
Speaking of teams that have question marks at kicker, Tulsa is currently trying to figure out which of the guys on their roster is going to have the job. They currently have three players vying for the place kicking role, two of which have never kicked in a college game.
The one that does have experience is graduate transfer Danny Donley, who was the kicker at Drake University the past couple of years. Donley was 9-for-9 in field goals and 34-for-37 in PAT’s for Drake last year. He was honorable mention all-league in 2017 as well.
Besides Donley the options are red-shirt freshman Jacob Rainey, and junior Zack Long. My guess is that Donley is the guy, but the other two might get some looks as well, especially at kickoffs.
Jake Hartbarger returns for another attempt at a full senior season. The four year starter was given an extra year of eligibility after suffering a season ending injury in the second game of the season at Arizona State last year.
Hartbarger ranks seventh all-time at MSU for punting average (42.1 yards per punt) and is 10th in total punts and punting yards.
His last full season in 2017 was a great one. He averaged 42 yards per punt while only allowing 12 returns for 31 yards for the entire season. He had 28 of his 69 punts inside the 20 yard line and 15 inside the ten. He also had 12 punts of over 50 yards for the year.
With Hartbarger back, the Spartans have a real weapon in the field position game, one that they utilized very well during the ten win season in 2017.
The Golden Hurricane have themselves a very good punter as well.
Senior Thomas Bennett ranked fifth nationally last season averaging 46.6 yards per punt. He had a long of 68 yards last season, coming in the season opener. Bennett had 15 punts of 50+ yards and dropped 12 of his 53 punts inside the 20 yard line. He did not have a punt blocked.
It might surprise you to know that MSU was 24th in the nation in kickoff return average last season. On the whole, the Spartans averaged a very respectable 23.68 yards per return.
The bulk of those returns were taken by Connor Heyward, who is not listed as a kickoff returner on the opening depth chart.
Instead Darrell Stewart and Jalen Nailor are listed as the kick returners. Stewart is no stranger to the kick return game. He has 15 career kick returns for an average of 25.1 yards per return. Nailor has not had a kick return yet but makes perfect sense in the role given his speed.
Michigan State has not had a kick return touchdown since R.J. Shelton took one back against Penn State in the final regular season game in 2014. Prior to that the last kickoff return TD was by Keshawn Martin in 2009. So based on that, they should get one this year.
Tulsa was pretty solid in the kickoff coverage last year, checking in at 40th overall allowing 19.48 yards per return. They did not give up a kickoff return touchdown.
Tulsa was not a very good kickoff return team last year, ranking 108th nationally with an average of 18.1 yards per return. Wideout Keylon Strokes had 13 returns averaging 23.46 yards per return, while fellow receiver Sam Crawford had 15 returns with a 16.80 yard average.
Strokes was also the team’s leading pass catcher a year ago while Crawford was limited to special teams.
The Spartans were 17th in the nation in kickoff coverage last season, allowing just 17.93 yards per return. This was a big area of improvement from the previous few seasons where kickoff coverage was a consistent problem. Hopefully that will carry over to this year as well.
I don’t even have to pull up the numbers to tell you that MSU has not been worth much when it comes to punt returns. If you must know, the Spartans were 97th in return average last year and Brandon Sowards had the most returns and return yards.
Sowards is also nowhere to be found on the week one depth chart on special teams. Instead, Jalen Nailor will get the call as the lead punt returner. As mentioned above, this seems like a logical fit given Nailor’s speed and play making ability.
Nailor had four returns last year for a measly 3.25 yards per return, but I wouldn’t read too much into that small sample size. With Nailor, the threat of him breaking one is there, and that was not something you got with Sowards.
It has been a long time since MSU broke a punt return for a touchdown, as you have to go all the way back to Keshawn Martin against Northwestern in 2011.
Tulsa was 103rd in punt coverage last year surrendering 10.65 yards per return. They also allowed a punt return touchdown against Memphis.
The Golden Hurricane were a pretty good punt return team last year, coming in at 26th nationally with an average return of 12.42 yards. That was the third best return average of a team that did not get a punt return for touchdown.
Now senior wide receiver Jarion Anderson had 11 of the team’s 12 punt returns last year and averaged 12.64 yards per return.
Michigan State was 26th in the country in punt coverage, allowing just 5.39 yards per return last year. As we mentioned above, Hartbarger was excellent at limiting return opportunities two years ago, something that I expect to continue this year.
Both teams have excellent punters, and that will play into the field position game. The return games are pretty uneven for both teams, but Michigan State has a clear edge in coverage overall.
The biggest difference is at kicker, where MSU has an established all-conference kicker, and Tulsa is probably leaning on a graduate transfer from a lower level.
I give the edge to the Spartans, but I am interested to see the matchup of Thomas Bennett punting to Nailor with a coverage unit that struggled a year ago.