Every aspect of football at the SEC level is crucial. There is little argument for that. Lesser known, is that the special teams aspect plays a much more pivotal role than seen on the surface. If you did already know that, you – like many others – probably tend to overlook it. With this in mind, for LSU, the special teams unit has been far from stellar. From muffed punts to blocked field goals, their struggles were tough to ignore last season. Don’t worry, we won’t bring up the Florida State game. In any case, with Brian Polian‘s departure from LSU just two weeks ago, we can now have a special teams heart-to-heart with a little optimism in the air. Just a little. Some of these numbers we go over are going to be pretty hard to swallow, but hang in there.
The Curious Case of Brian Polian
Amidst the off-season coaching shuffle, Polian, LSU’s 2022 special teams coordinator, recently announced his departure. After a successful coaching career spanning multiple schools and positions, Polian has decided to return to his alma mater, John Carroll University, in Ohio as the athletic director.
Thank you LSU. pic.twitter.com/Z1QSUy7wNR
— Brian Polian (@BrianPolian) May 2, 2023
Polian’s, move is likely -and understandably- motivated by a desire to settle in one place for an extended period, putting an end to the numerous relocations that have taken a toll on both his family and himself. It’s a good, well-deserved job offer that he’s been working towards since 1997. So, congratulations to Polian, and well wishes to him on his journey. The story of Polian isn’t as simple as that, though.
Polian was on Brian Kelly’s staff for five seasons at Notre Dame before Kelly brought him down to Baton Rouge. Kelly reassigned him roles after last season’s poor special teams’ performance and made him general manager of the football program. Kelly obviously saw a lot of value in Polian, so this is a significant loss from that perspective. Along with coordinating special teams, he was LSU’s recruiting coordinator and had tons of success in that now-vacant role. JR Belton is the director of recruiting, and he’s still in Baton Rouge, but since that’s not an on-field staff position he can’t recruit off-campus. This is just to say that a hire or assignment does need to be made in the recruiting coordinator spot.
A New Face for Special Teams
In February, John Jancek stepped into the role left vacant by Polian becoming the new special teams coordinator and outside linebackers coach. Kelly and Jancek go way back. It was Kelly who gave him his first job in 1991 as a graduate assistant at Grand Valley State. Since then he’s coached all over the FBS landscape, including stints with Georgia as the linebackers coach, and Tennessee as defensive coordinator. With that in mind, Jancek is bringing a wealth of knowledge and expertise to Baton Rouge. His arrival signals a fresh start for LSU’s special teams and hopes for a more organized and efficient unit. Emphasis on the efficient part.
The Woes of Last Season
Last year’s overall special team performance was – and this is not an overstatement – absolutely atrocious. The numbers will not disagree with that. When evaluating any team’s special teams performance, the first statistic to look into is overall efficiency. Last season, LSU ranked a dismal 125th out of 131 teams in the Football Efficiency Index (FEI) special teams ratings. Some of this is due to missed and blocked field goals, or kickoffs out of bounds. The biggest problem lies elsewhere, though. LSU ranked dead last -131 out of 131- in punt return efficiency, with an efficiency score of -0.39. They were the undisputed worst punt return team in the entire league. Now, the method of arrival at that stat is a little obscure. FEI has PRE (Punt Return Efficiency) described in their table explanation as, “scoring value gained or lost per punt return”. Which, leaves us little to go on. What we can see, is that the next closest team is SMU at a rating of -.32. Seven one-hundredths of a point seems minuscule until you realize that if you go .07 up from SMU’s score, there are nine teams between -.25 and -.32. Bear in mind, these are the next nine worst teams. The Tigers were in a league of their own.
Truth be told, it makes sense after you go on a little stat scavenger hunt. If you head over to sports reference and look at the individual punt return stats by player, the math comes out to 3.2 yards per return. One could assume that the short return average paired with their three muffed punts on the season (two of them scooped and scored) is what put them at the bottom of the list in efficiency.
Finding a Return Man
Okay, no more piling it on the Tigers. After all, we’re talking about a team that will undoubtedly be ranked in the top ten when the pre-season AP poll is released. Special teams is their only glaring weakness, and with a new coordinator, they’re already a step ahead. One of Jancek’s first hurdles within the special teams unit will be establishing a punt returner. In all fairness, that was part of the problem last year. The Tigers had three different guys returning punts last season. In the end, they settled on Gregory Clayton Jr. since he’s the only one who didn’t butter his fingers before every game. The lack of a go-to guy cost the team in crucial moments and even led to defeat in the season opener.
So, identifying and developing a skilled return specialist is paramount. Maybe that guy is Clayton Jr., or maybe it’s a name that’s not been called before. Either way, it needs to be someone. To be clear, their returner doesn’t need to be Tyrann Mathieu back there. They just need a sure-handed, shifty guy who can make the first man miss and pick up eight yards. Aaron Anderson, the Freshman wide receiver transfer from ‘Bama, could be that guy. He had great success returning the ball in high school and placed 6th in Louisiana in the 100 meters. At this point, why not give the young man a shot? There’s nothing to lose, and only more than 3.2 yards to gain.
Photo courtesy: SCOTT CLAUSE/USA TODAY Network