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Michigan State 2020 Positional Preview: Special Teams

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Matt Coghlin could become the all-time MSU leader in field goals, but overall the Spartans’ fourth phase needs to improve.

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

The Spartans special teams was not all that special last year, as they finished the year 101st in the SP+ rankings. There were a variety of reasons for the low ranking, but overall as a unit, they just weren’t very good.

With a new staff comes a new coach, and R

oss Els will take over as MSU’s special teams coordinator in addition to his duties as the linebackers coach. Els also held the same two positions at Colorado under Mel Tucker last year. The Buffs were a slight positive on special teams, and ranked 43rd in the SP+ rankings.

Place Kicker

Matt Coghlin enters his senior year as the Spartans kicker. A three-year starter, Coghlin has the fourth best field goal percentage in school history at 75.3 percent, and has never missed an extra point in his career. He is tied with Dan Conroy for fifth in MSU history with 55 made field goals, and is one behind Michael Geiger for fourth place, and two behind John Langeloh for third place. He would need 17 made field goals to become the school’s all-time leader in that category.

Last season was the worst of his career in terms of field goal percentage, making 68.8 percent of his attempts, after coming in at just over 80 percent for his first two seasons. However, he did set career highs in makes and attempts last year.

It was an up and down season for Matt, who made his first seven attempts of the season, before missing all three attempts in the 10-7 loss to Arizona State. That kicked off a six game stretch in which he was just 4-for-11. But, he finished the year with a five game-stretch where he was 11-for-14.

Coghlin remains pretty steady overall, and despite his struggles in the middle of the season, seemed to find his confidence again at the end of the year. He has three career game-winning field goals, the most recent of which came against Maryland last year.

Of all the aspects of the MSU special teams to worry about, Coghlin is near the bottom of the list overall.

Punter

Jake Hartbarger has officially graduated after what seems like a full decade at MSU. He finished his career with 249 punts, fourth most in school history. His 42.4 yard career average was sixth best, just slightly ahead of the late Mike Sadler.

Hartbarger handled all of the punting last year after being granted an extra year of eligibility after missing most of 2018 with an injury suffered in the game at Arizona State.

Tyler Hunt seems most likely to take over the punting duties this year. Hunt, a fourth year walk-on, took over the bulk of the punting duties in 2018 after Hartbarger’s injury, before suffering his own injury in practice prior to the Purdue game.

Hunt was pretty solid, though, averaging over 40 yards per punt, and dropping 15 out of 36 punts (41.7 percent) inside the 20-yard line.

Hunt also served as the holder for field goals last year and occasionally showed up on the kickoff return team. He had a 16-yard kickoff return in the Pinstripe Bowl, his lone attempt of the year.

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

The Spartan punting unit should be in good hands with Hunt, and there should not be a significant drop-off in punting distance or accuracy. What does need to improve is the punt coverage, which ranked 91st in the country last year after being 26th the year before, and third overall the year before that.

Hunt’s biggest competition for the starting role will likely be UTEP grad transfer Mitchell Crawford. Crawford, who originally hails from Australia, averaged 39.7 yards per punts in two seasons with the Miners.

Bryce Baringer, a redshirt junior who walked onto the team in 2018 after spending his freshman year with Illinois, will also be in the mix for punting duties. He punted 15 times for 486 yards (32.4 yards per punt) in 2018.

Kick Returner

Speaking of areas where MSU needs to improve, kickoff returns is another one. The Spartans were 101st overall in that department last year, after being 24th the year before. They were 63rd two years ago, so last year was pretty bad.

The leading candidates to handle the kickoff return duties are Anthony Williams, Jalen Nailor, and Julian Barnett.

Williams was second on the team last year in kickoff returns, with five attempts and an average of 18.60 yards per attempt. Nailor had the best average on the team, at 25.67 yards per attempt on just three returns. Barnett also had three returns, and averaged just 12 yards per attempt.

Obviously Nailor has the speed to be a dangerous kick returner, but his health issues have caused him to miss significant time the past two seasons, and it’s possible that the coaches will want to keep him out of harm’s way as much as they can.

Williams should see some time at running back on offense, but playing behind Collins, his opportunity to make a big difference might come on special teams. If Williams can break through on kickoff returns, that would be a great chance for him to be an impact player, while also getting looks on offense.

Barnett could slot in as one of the starting cornerbacks next year, and may even still get some reps at wide receiver, where he played last season. If that is the case, you also want to minimize the extra hits he is taking by keeping him off of special teams.

Punt Returner

Another area where MSU has struggled over the last few years is in the punt return game. Last year the Spartans were 82nd nationally in punt return average, which was actually a slight improvement over the previous two seasons where they ranked 97th and 119th.

You have to go all the way back to 2013 to find MSU in the top half of the country in punt return average.

Last year Brandon Sowards led the team in punt returns, handling 16 of the 26 returns. Cody White had seven of the remaining 10 returns. Of the returning players only Nailor and (now) senior defensive back Dominque Long had any attempts last season. Nailor averaged 8.5 yards per return on two attempts, while Long’s lone return went for nine yards.

Nailor seems like the obvious choice, but Laress Nelson also has some experience with nine career punt returns in the 2017 and 2018 seasons.

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

It really might come down to which player on the roster the coaches trust to field punts cleanly, as has been the case the last few years. But a new staff might be willing to try some more risk for more potential reward, and Nelson and Nailor certainly have the speed to put pressure on opposing coverage units.

Kickoff Specialist

Cole Hahn handled most of the kickoffs last year for MSU and averaged just under 59 yards per kick, with a touchback rate of 17.31 percent. As a result, the Spartans were 103rd in kickoff distance and 108th in touchback percentage. Additionally, Michigan State was just 87th in kickoff return coverage.

Evan Morris, now a redshirt freshman, appeared in two games, had 11 kickoffs, five for touchbacks (45.45 percent) and averaged almost 60 yards per kick. That touchback rate would have ranked 62nd overall, which would have been a big improvement.

I would like to see an open competition for this spot between the two of them. Michigan State is going to need every little advantage they can get, and field position battles are something they are going to need to try and win to put their offense in better position, as well as to help out their defense.