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Tuesday, June 25, 2013
Fact or Fiction: Hopkins will be missed

By David M. Hale

This week, NoleNation is digging into the most hotly debated topics of the summer at Florida State in an effort to separate fact from fiction as the Seminoles get set for the 2013 season.

Next up: Special teams.

Fact or Fiction: With Dustin Hopkins gone, Florida State can expect to regress on special teams in 2013.

The case for: It's not that a kicker makes or breaks a special teams unit, but if any program understands the significance of the position, it's Florida State -- a school with several seasons defined by kicks, both made and missed.

Dustin Hopkins
It would be tough for any kicker to replace Dustin Hopkins at Florida State.
Replacing Hopkins is a nearly impossible task. The four-year starter left FSU as the most prolific kicker in NCAA history, rewriting the record book for the school, the conference and the nation. And Hopkins' senior season was no doubt his finest. Only six kickers in the country with at least 20 tries connected on a higher percentage of field-goal attempts than Hopkins (83.3 percent), and he made the sixth-most attempts as well (30). His 25 made field goals were the second-most in the country.

Stepping into the role will be freshman Roberto Aguayo, who certainly has an impressive enough leg -- he drilled three kicks of longer than 50 yards in the spring game -- but no experience. And even Hopkins wasn't a star as a freshman, converting 70 percent of his tries. The pressure will be high for Aguayo, and that's hardly an ideal situation for a freshman.

Beyond the kicking game, last year's special teams units set an awfully high standard. FSU ranked 16th nationally in kick return average (24.65 yards) and led the nation in total punt return yards (536). The Seminoles were one of just five teams with three punt-return TDs, and their coverage unit allowed the seventh-fewest returned punts in the country.

The case against: From Hopkins' big season to big returns by Lamarcus Joyner or Rashad Greene to the strong coverage units all around, it's easy to applaud the work of FSU's special teams in 2012. But for all the success, there were some glaring failures, too.

Freshman punter Cason Beatty struggled mightily at times, and FSU finished with the 11th-worst net punting average of any team in the country. Worse yet, two of Beatty's kicks were blocked, including a disastrous boot late in the game against NC State that directly contributed to an FSU loss. Beatty showed progress late in the season, however, and it stands to reason that he'll improve dramatically in Year 2. Simply moving to the middle of the pack in the ACC would be a vast improvement.

Those impressive returns in 2012 were nearly offset by some ugly plays, too, including three special-teams turnovers that led to a yearlong carousel of punt returners. Greene lost his job, replaced by Tyler Hunter, who flubbed the gig and was replaced by Kenny Shaw. Add in an astonishing 18 special-teams penalties last season and there were simply too many mental miscues that should be easily corrected in 2013.

Perhaps the best reason for optimism this year, however, is the sheer quantity of talent. All of last year's top return men are back, and speedy freshman Levonte Whitfield will be added to the mix. New special teams coordinator Charles Kelly has top athletes playing on the return and coverage units. After a year of mental breakdowns, special teams will be a focus across the board.

Verdict: Fact

Really, the success and failure of FSU's special teams in 2013 might be a matter of perspective. There's a strong chance that, on the whole, the unit will be more consistent than it was a year ago, with better performances from Beatty and fewer costly mental breakdowns.

But the story of last year's special teams group wasn't about the handful of flubs but the numerous highlights, and FSU will be hard pressed to repeat that success. Hopkins was as reliable as anyone in the country -- he connected on 21 of 22 kicks at one point -- and his ability to successfully kickoff directionally, rather than simply boot touchbacks, was a distinct advantage for FSU.

In the end, the drop-off in production probably won't be overwhelming, but there's little chance the Seminoles will go the whole season without missing Hopkins in one or two crucial moments. Given that the offense will be trotting out a freshman quarterback as well, odds are those special teams plays will loom even larger than they did in 2012.