Talk of special teams improvement during the preseason has centered on the two senior redshirts from last year, kicker Andrew Ritter and punter Tyler Campbell.
SEC coaches obviously remember Campbell, placing him on their preseason All-SEC second team after a year off.
Ritter has been the kickoff specialist since his freshman year but will be handling placement kicks for the first time as he replaces the reliable Bryson Rose.
Where the Rebels really need improvement is with their kick coverage units. Twice in the last two regular season games opponents scored special teams touchdowns.
The punt return by LSU’s Odell Beckham was a game-changer. Linebacker coach Tom Allen coordinates the special teams and talks about what happened on Beckham’s return in this story that appeared in the Mother Ship this morning.
Allen and Hugh Freeze also talk about building depth on the special teams.
By Parrish Alford
OXFORD – The battle cry for depth at Ole Miss isn’t limited to offense and defense.
Not all key players on the Rebels’ two-deep roster should expect a break on special teams as coaches work to build depth there as well.
Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze began targeting this season’s special teams last year when he took the unusual approach of redshirting two seniors, kicker Andrew Ritter and punter Tyler Campbell.
Bryson Rose and Jim Broadway, last year’s kicker and punter, had mixed results, but there was consistency in the return game, and it wasn’t good.
The Rebels were last in the SEC in kickoff coverage, gaining a field position average of only 38.8 yards on average. They next to last in net-punting at 36.0 yards per attempt.
“We certainly have to improve our coverage units. I hope Ritter and Campbell can make our special teams better too,” Freeze said.
Ritter was the Rebels’ kickoff specialist for three seasons before redshirting. He will handle placement kicking for the first time since high school.
Campbell was the NCAA’s punting champion with a 46.4-yard average as a sophomore. As a junior in 2011 the staff went to more “rugby” style punting. Campbell’s averaged dropped by about 3 yards per punt, but his number of punts downed inside the 20 increased.
Last year Ole Miss allowed touchdowns in the return game in its final two reason season games, a kick return against Mississippi State that it was able to overcome, a punt return against LSU the prior week that it was not.
Odell Beckham’s 89-yard punt return was part of LSU’s 21-point fourth quarter, tying the game at 35 with 9 minutes, 10 minutes to play.
Coaches say that was an example of lack of depth. Cody Prewitt, the starting free safety, left the game injured, and the backup who took his place did the right thing but didn’t do it fast enough.
“The guy we punt in was a younger guy that wasn’t quite ready, but he had to step up in a critical part of the game late in the game. He did his job but got held up way longer than he should have, and when you look at the coverage he was the whole that was missing,” said Tom Allen, special teams coordinator.
Freeze has talked about gaining special teams depth from the signing class. Many of them are working on the kickoff and kick return units including Evan Engram, Bobby Hill, Kailo Moore, Mark Dodson on kick return, Tony Connor on kickoff.
Some starters remain very involved too, Denzel Nkemdiche, Trae Elston and Mike Marry among them.
Freeze hopes his young players produce on special teams.
“They’re on them. We’re going to find out how well they do. We certainly have to improve our coverage units, and hopefully some of the younger kids can perform.”