Auburn Tigers: Cody Parkey

Today, our SEC position-by-position rankings move to an area that will see plenty of turnover throughout the league: special teams.

There are a ton of SEC heavyweights who lost key special teamers, like league champ Auburn -- which lost punter Steven Clark, kicker Cody Parkey, now-legendary return man Chris Davis and kickoff returner/tailback Tre Mason -- LSU (All-American Odell Beckham) and Alabama (punter Cody Mandell and kicker Cade Foster). That’s just a start.

The league is full of dynamic playmakers who can become stars in the return game, but as of right now, many SEC teams have questions to answer on special teams. That’s why teams that have returning veterans at those positions sit high in our rankings.

Special teams position rankings

1. Texas A&M: There aren’t many SEC teams that can make this claim, but the Aggies have a clean sweep of returning specialists. Leading the way is an All-American and Ruy Guy Award finalist at punter, Drew Kaser, who broke the school record with a 47.4-yard average last season. Texas A&M also has kicker Josh Lambo (8-for-10 on field goals in 2013), kickoff returner Trey Williams (25.2 yards per return, fifth in the SEC) and punt returner De’Vante Harris (6.7 yards per return, sixth in the SEC) back this fall. That’s a solid collection of talent that should help an Aggies team that certainly has some questions to answer on offense and defense.

2. Missouri: This is another squad that returns the key figures from a season ago, led by versatile return man Marcus Murphy. Murphy was fifth in the SEC in punt returns (7.0) and 11th in kickoff returns (22.2) while also contributing to the Tigers’ solid running game. Andrew Baggett (18-for-25 on field goals, 8.6 points per game) was the SEC’s second-leading scorer among kickers, and he returns along with punter Christian Brinser (41.0 yards per punt).

3. Georgia: Truth be told, Georgia was frequently terrible on special teams last season. The Bulldogs struggled to generate much of anything in the return game and experienced some issues with blocked punts. Coach Mark Richt changed the way the coaching staff will address special teams during the offseason, and perhaps that will make a difference. The individual specialists are actually pretty good -- particularly kicker Marshall Morgan, who should generate some All-America attention himself. Morgan was 22-for-24 (91.7 percent) and led all SEC kickers with an average of 10.3 points per game, truly one of the best seasons by a kicker in school history. Punters Collin Barber and Adam Erickson were mostly average, which is more than can be said for the Bulldogs’ return men. Keep an eye on freshman Isaiah McKenzie in August to see if he has a chance to contribute in the return game.

4. LSU: The return game will certainly suffer a blow without electric All-American Beckham -- the winner of last season’s Paul Hornung Award as the nation’s most versatile player -- but LSU has no shortage of athletic players (running back Terrence Magee is one option) whom the coaches can plug into Beckham’s old spots. The Tigers are solid at kicker with Colby Delahoussaye, who led the SEC by making 92.9 percent of his field goals (13 of 14). They held a competition for the punting job during the spring between hot-and-cold Jamie Keehn (41.0 ypp) and walk-on Trent Domingue.

5. South Carolina: Here’s another one where experience helps, although the Gamecocks have much to improve upon this season. Punter Tyler Hull (37.8 ypp) is back, but South Carolina ranked last in the SEC with an average of 34.1 net yards per punt. They were mediocre both returning and covering kickoffs and at returning punts, although Pharoh Cooper (22.4 ypr on kickoffs and 4.4 ypr on punts) might be a breakout candidate for the Gamecocks this fall. Elliott Fry was a solid performer (15-for-18 on field goals, fourth in the SEC with 7.6 ppg) at place-kicker in 2013.

6. Alabama: The Crimson Tide should rank higher on this list by season’s end. After all, they have arguably the SEC’s top return man in Christion Jones (second in the league with 28.7 ypr on kickoffs and second with 14.0 ypr on punts). But they also lost a dynamic punter in Mandell and a place-kicker, Foster, who was solid last season before melting down in the Iron Bowl. Perhaps Adam Griffith (1-for-3 on field goals) will take over the kicking job, but Alabama also has high hopes for signee J.K. Scott, who is capable of kicking or punting in college.

7. Arkansas: The rankings start getting murky around the middle of the pack. Arkansas has a phenomenal punter back in ambidextrous Australian Sam Irwin-Hill (44.3 ypp, fifth in the SEC), but the Razorbacks also lost kicker Zach Hocker (13-for-15 on field goals) and punt returner Javontee Herndon. Kickoff returner Korliss Marshall (22.2 ypr, 10th in the SEC) is back. It would be huge for Arkansas if signee Cole Hedlund, USA Today’s first-team All-USA kicker for the Class of 2014, can come in and take over Hocker’s job.

8. Florida: We’re speculating here that Andre Debose comes back healthy and reclaims his job as the Gators’ kickoff return man. That would be a big deal since Debose is tied for the SEC’s career lead with four kickoff returns for touchdowns. Now-departed Solomon Patton did a great job in his place last season, averaging 29.2 ypr. The Gators also lost punt returner Marcus Roberson (9.2 ypr). The big issue, though, is at kicker, where former top kicking prospect Austin Hardin (4-for-12 on field goals) was awful last season and eventually gave way to Francisco Velez (6-for-8). Likewise, Johnny Townsend (42.0 ypp) took over at punter for former Groza finalist Kyle Christy (39.6) because of a slump, although both are back.

9. Kentucky: Although the Wildcats lost a solid kicker in Joe Mansour (12-for-14 on field goals), they still have several solid players returning. They include punt returner Demarco Robinson (10.4 ypr), kickoff returner Javess Blue (20.4 ypr) and punter Landon Foster (41.3 ypp). Austin MacGinnis, one of the nation’s better kicking prospects in 2013, claimed the place-kicking job during spring practice.

10. Auburn: As with Alabama, we expect Auburn to move up this list during the season. They have the No. 1 kicking prospect from 2013, redshirt freshman Daniel Carlson, taking over for Parkey at place-kicker. They have speedster Corey Grant as an option at kickoff return. And they have another talented redshirt freshman, Jimmy Hutchinson, inheriting the reliable Clark’s spot at punter. Quan Bray might be the man who takes over at punt returner for Davis, who averaged 18.7 ypr (which doesn’t include his 109-yard field goal return to beat Alabama), but he could face a challenge from candidates like Trovon Reed, Marcus Davis or Johnathan Ford.

11. Tennessee: Considering how the Volunteers lost punter/kicker Michael Palardy (third in SEC with 44.5 yards per punt and 14-for-17 on field goals), it’s a good thing that they signed top kicking prospect and Under Armour All-American Aaron Medley. Tennessee has return man Devrin Young (25.9 ypr on kickoffs and 7.9 on punts) and backup punt return man Jacob Carter (9.3 ypr) back, as well.

12. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs return most everyone from last season (minus punter Baker Swedenburg, who averaged 42.5 ypp), but it remains to be determined whether that’s a good thing. They were mediocre or worse in most special teams departments in 2013 – especially at place-kicker, where Devon Bell (6-for-14 on field goals) and Evan Sobiesk (3-for-6) were hardly reliable. Bell (41.2 ypp) was a decent punter, but could face a challenge from signee Logan Cooke on kickoffs and punts. Return man Jameon Lewis (23.5 ypr on kickoffs and 2.3 on punts) is back, as is speedster Brandon Holloway (37.7 ypr on three kickoffs and 18.0 ypr on two punts), who is trying to crack the starting lineup at running back, but could become a dynamic return man if given the opportunity.

13. Ole Miss: By losing punter Tyler Campbell (44.4 ypp, fourth in the SEC), kicker Andrew Ritter (16-for-24 on field goals) and punt returner Jeff Scott (12.7 ypr), Ole Miss has plenty of holes to fill. They have kickoff returner Jaylen Walton (20.6 ypr) back and also signed the No. 2 kicking prospect for 2014, Gary Wunderlich, who is capable of becoming a standout performer as both a kicker and punter.

14. Vanderbilt: New coach Derek Mason didn’t seem particularly enthused about his special teams units after spring practice. The Commodores lost kicker Carey Spear (15-for-19 on field goals) and potential replacement Tommy Openshaw struggled during spring scrimmages, potentially opening the door for a walk-on. Punter Taylor Hudson (42.9 ypp, seventh in the SEC) is back, but he and competitor Colby Cooke were apparently not very consistent this spring, either. Vandy lost punt returner Jonathan Krause (3.6 ypr) and returns leading kickoff return man Darrius Sims (22.8 ypr, eighth in the SEC).
Dee Ford has seen it all during his time at Auburn -- the highs and the lows.

As a freshman, he won a BCS national championship. Two years later, he endured a 3-9 season and the coaching change that ensued. But the senior defensive end stuck around and finished his career as a part of this year’s Auburn team that came a play or two away from winning a second national championship in the last four years.

[+] EnlargeWinston Sacked
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesNosa Eguae ended his senior season in the same way he ended his freshman season in 2010 -- starting for Auburn in a BCS championship game.
“It's been a big roller coaster,” Ford said prior to Monday’s title game. “There's a message behind it. Things aren't going to work out when you expect it to. It’s really revealed who we are as individuals and who we are as a team.”

Things didn’t work out for the Tigers in Pasadena. They ultimately fell short of the ultimate goal, losing to Florida State in the national championship, but it was still a season to remember for Ford and the rest of that senior class. After everything, they went out on top.

“It means a lot for me to go out (like this) my last year,” Ford said after the game. “In the entire time, we set a goal to have the biggest turnaround in college football history, and it was an amazing journey for me. I'm definitely proud to be an Auburn Tiger right now. We didn't win, but at the end of the day, I'm still proud of my team.”

It was the same sentiment shared by all 15 seniors. The majority of them were there for the 2010 national championship. They all went through last year’s difficult season and finished this season on top, despite the loss to the Seminoles.

It was a journey that brought them closer together.

Ford’s partner on the defensive line, Nosa Eguae, is also a senior. In fact, he was the only starter from the 2010 team still on the roster. On Tuesday, Eguae addressed his fellow seniors in an open letter to the fans that he shared with multiple media outlets.

“This is the last time my brothers and I will get to spend a day with each other,” Eguae said. “For tomorrow, we will go our separate ways and pass the torch to the next group of seniors that will lead and fight for the greater good of the family. From tragedy to triumph, I could not ask for a better group of men to ride off into the sunset with.”

In addition to Eguae and Ford, the senior class that has grown so close together includes the likes of Steven Clark, Chris Davis, Jake Holland, Cody Parkey, Jay Prosch, Ryan Smith and Ryan White -- all who started or made an impact at some point during the season.

It’s a group that could have won two national championships during their time at Auburn but will still leave behind a legacy that will affect the program for years to come.

“There will be a lot of great things and great memories that our seniors have led us to be,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “We were just on the brink of making it one of those magical seasons, but there's so many great things that we'll take. I just told the seniors they laid the groundwork for our program moving forward, and our program is very bright right now.”

With nine starters returning on offense, pending Tre Mason's decision, and seven starters returning on defense, the Tigers should be among the nation’s elite teams again next season. They’re ranked No. 5 in ESPN’s Way-Too-Early Top 25 for 2014. But it will be up to the seniors-to-be to provide the leadership.

Center Reese Dismukes, a three-year starter, knows he’ll be counted on as a leader again next season, but he showed his appreciation to the departing seniors after Monday’s game.

“Proud of my teammates and coaches,” the Auburn captain tweeted. “We fight and fight til the end. Thanks seniors for all you’ve done for this program.”

The torch has been passed.

How Missouri and Auburn were built 

December, 4, 2013
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After losing 16 games combined last season, Missouri and Auburn have come a long ways as they prepare to face off Saturday in the SEC championship game. How, exactly, did both of these schools get here?

Their success on the field this season -- just two losses combined -- is more impressive considering Auburn is in Gus Malzahn's first season as coach and Missouri moved over from the Big 12 to the SEC before last season. Recruiting is tough enough as it is, but going through such a major transition for both programs can be detrimental to a school's recruiting class.

[+] EnlargeDorial Green-Beckham
Mark Zerof/USA TODAY SportsFormer No. 1 overall recruit Dorial Green-Beckham has caught 49 passes for 686 yards and 10 touchdowns this season.
If games were determined by recruiting rankings, Missouri would be at a big disadvantage. Over the past five years, Missouri has never finished inside the top 25 in the team recruiting rankings. In that same time period, the Tigers have landed only five recruits ranked in the ESPN 300.

What we learned: Week 11

November, 10, 2013
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- There was concern prior to Saturday’s game. Auburn was playing on the road in a stadium that had already seen one upset last month. It was an early kick, which has plagued the Tigers in recent seasons. But despite a rocky start, Gus Malzahn’s bunch came through yet again, racing past Tennessee and improving to 9-1 on the season.

Here are three things we learned from the game:

Pass optional: Auburn scored 55 points Saturday and only completed three passes. It was the fewest number of passes completed in a win since 1985. But the Tigers didn’t need to throw it. Tennessee had no answer for the SEC’s top rushing attack. Quarterback Nick Marshall led the way with 214 rushing yards and two touchdowns. Tre Mason, who entered the game among the league leaders in both yards and touchdowns, ran for 117 yards and three scores. It was the third time this season that Auburn had multiple 100-yard rushers in a game. Malzahn still believes his team can throw the ball when needed, but why throw it when you can rush for 444 yards against an SEC-caliber defense.

“Special” teams: Auburn’s special teams, in particular the return game, had as much to do -- if not more -- with the win than the offense and the defense. Chris Davis had two long punt returns, one that went 85 yards for a touchdown and another that set up a touchdown. Corey Grant took the opening kickoff in the second half 90 yards for a touchdown. The Tigers had a school-record 312 return yards by the end of the third quarter, and there was talk they might set the all-time NCAA mark (376) before it was over. They came up short, but it was still a day to remember for special teams’ coach Scott Fountain and his group. The only blemish was a blocked extra point that put an end to Cody Parkey’s SEC-leading streak of 90 consecutive made PATs.

Building confidence: Before the season, the best-case scenario for Auburn was eight wins and a decent bowl game. Nobody told Malzahn that. With Saturday’s victory, the Tigers have now surpassed that win total, and there’s still two games left to be played. Malzahn won’t let his team look ahead, but if they can knock off both Georgia and Alabama at home to finish the regular season, they will earn a trip to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game. The scary part is Auburn looks better with every game. There’s a sense of confidence that is growing. Last season, the Tigers lost all hope. This season, they share the belief that they can beat anybody. It’s been a complete turnaround, and one that’s likely not over yet.

Auburn shows grit in comeback win

September, 16, 2013
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AUBURN, Ala. -- Mississippi State was a make-or-break game for Auburn. Despite two wins to start the season, nobody knew what to expect from the Tigers. They still hadn’t won an SEC game since 2011, but were they ready to put that streak behind them? Had they recovered from last year? Was it really a new day?

The players responded. Auburn rallied to win Saturday, 24-20, ending its 10-game conference losing streak. A loss could’ve been crippling, but instead the Tigers have taken another step to restoring the program for both the fans and the players.

“It’s like a chip off our shoulder,” cornerback Ryan White said. “We haven’t made it yet, but it feels good to get that notch down. We’re already at the amount of wins we had last year, and it just feels good to be on the right track and 3-0.”

“I think some people weren’t buying into Auburn, but I think after (Saturday), people are taking notice,” added defensive end Dee Ford.

Through three games, there’s an uncanny resemblance to the 2010 season. With a junior college quarterback leading the way, Auburn blew out Arkansas State early in the year and followed it up with a close victory over Mississippi State the very next week. Sound familiar?

In 2010, the Tigers won their first three games en route to an undefeated season and a national championship, but coach Gus Malzahn was quick to point out that this year’s team still has a long ways to go to before it can be compared to that team.

“You know, that team was a special veteran group and we’re not anywhere close to being veteran,” he said. “We’re still a work in the progress, but it’s a good progress. I really like where were as a team. We’re going to have the chance to improve each game, and I think our young guys will grow up and get better.”

The younger players will have to grow up quickly this weekend with a trip to Baton Rouge, La., a place where Auburn hasn’t won since 1999. The players know it will take a near-perfect performance if they expect to knock off No. 6 LSU on the road.

“LSU has a pretty awesome stadium to play in,” kicker Cody Parkey said. “They get real loud. I’m a senior, so I’ve played there before. We’re just going to have to execute. There isn’t any room for mistakes.”

Win or lose Saturday, it’s clear the Auburn football program has still taken a step forward from last year. When dealt with adversity against Mississippi State, the team responded. They didn’t give up late in the game. They fought back and won.

Malzahn understands how important a victory like that can be moving forward.

“We beat a good team tonight,” he said after the game. “I think it does something for our whole team. I think it gives you a shot in the arm. They know they can do it, and they found a way to do it at home. I thought that was huge.”

This team might not be the 2010 team, but it proved it's also not last season's team.

Week 1 trends: Three up, three down

September, 1, 2013
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Nick MarshallMichael Chang/Getty ImagesAuburn quarterback Nick Marshall improved in the second half and didn't turn the ball over.

After every Auburn game this season, we’ll take a look at three trends going up and three trends going down for the Tigers. On Saturday, the Tigers opened the season with a 31-24 victory over Washington State, a game that featured plenty of highs but also some lows.

Three up

1. The running backs: Nick Marshall didn’t blow anybody away in his debut at quarterback, but fortunately for Auburn, he didn’t have to. The trio of running backs carried the Tigers’ offense throughout most of the game and made big plays when they needed to. Tre Mason was solid with 15 carries for 73 yards, not to mention his 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. Junior college transfer Cameron Artis-Payne was the bruiser of the group, but he also looked nimble for his size. He finished with 52 yards rushing. And the breakout star was Corey Grant, who led the team with 146 yards, including a 75-yard touchdown run in the second quarter. All three look like they’re going to play a major roles.

2. Special teams: It’s often overlooked, but Auburn’s play on special teams was a big reason why they won. The highlight came on Mason’s kickoff return, but both kicker Cody Parkey and punter Steven Clarke earned their All-SEC nominations with Saturday’s performance. Parkey missed a 50-yard field goal early in the game, but he drilled his last three attempts, which turned out to be the difference in the final score. Meanwhile, Clarke punted the ball five times for an average of 41.6 yards and put three of his kicks inside the opponent’s 20-yard kube. Chris Davis looked impressive on his lone punt return, picking up 19 yards.

3. The newcomers: Head coach Gus Malzahn said he expected the majority of the 2013 recruiting class to play against Washington State, and while that might have been a little generous, the newcomers still made their presence felt, in particular on defense. When defensive tackle Montravius Adams came into the game, he made a sack on his first play. It energized the crowd as well as his teammates. Both Elijah Daniel and Carl Lawson made appearances at defensive end, and juco tackle Ben Bradley also made a key sack for a loss of eight yards.

Three down

1. The secondary: Auburn made three interceptions Saturday, one more than all of last season, but they surrendered 344 yards passing to Washington State. Granted, they won’t have to face many offenses similar to Mike Leach’s air-raid attack, but the unit still showed glimpses of last season. There were breakdowns in coverage, including one that resulted in a 53-yard reception and ultimately led to a touchdown, and too many receivers were wide open. However, it’s not all on the defensive backs. Part of the blame falls on the front seven and their ability to generate a pass rush, which looked nonexistent at times in the first half.

2. Nick Marshall’s first half: The expectations were set very high, maybe too high, for Marshall coming into the season. It was obvious he wanted to show off his arm strength and make a play early in the game. Instead, he just looked nervous and out of sync in the first half. On his first play from scrimmage, he was indecisive and took a four-yard loss when he was tackled in the backfield. He was just 2 of 8 passing for 20 yards in the first half. The good news is that Marshall settled in during the second half and looked much more comfortable. Still nobody knows what to expect from the new quarterback, but with the nerves of his first game behind him, he should only improve from here.

3. Late turnover: For three quarters, the Tigers didn’t turn the ball over once. Say what you will about Marshall, but he protected the football. However, after an interception by Robenson Therezie that looked to seal the victory, Mason coughed the ball up while going for extra yardage. The defense came up with another key stop, but the game could have just as easily gone to overtime. Malzahn showed his trust in Mason by giving him the ball on the next drive, but Auburn has to avoid turnovers, especially late in games.

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