Welcome back to another season of Missouri football at Rock M Nation. Like every season, we’ll be running down the list of position groups, previewing each one with members of our football coverage team. You can find links to all pieces in the series here.
Missouri’s special teams were undoubtedly a weak spot last season, ranking 104th in Special Teams Efficiency. What have been the main issues plaguing this unit?
Nate Edwards, Staff Football Analyst: Good news! Missouri’s special teams ranking was 51st in S&P+, and 7th in the SEC (better than Bama, even)! The bad news: the biggest reason for that was punting and.... we’re essentially starting over at the punter position. The issue plaguing this unit, however, has really been in the returns department. Seemingly every time we kick the ball in the air, the opposing team goes 10-20 yards before a Tiger is even in the picture, while our guys field a kicked ball and are immediately swarmed by every opponent on the field. Last year even introduced the new fun tendency of getting every 5th field goal attempt blocked, and that was the year we FINALLY had a special teams coordinator! But back to returns.... we need someone to step up. Not emulate Jeremy Maclin exactly (unless you want to), but give us ten freaking yards at least. Last year we returned 16 kickoffs for 324 yards, or 20 yards per return. Not terrible, but not great. BUT— OH WAIT, DEAR READER— IT GETS WORSE. Three Tigers fielded 17 punts last year. Can you guess how many yards were gained on those punt returns?
(it’s disgusting. don’t look. you’ve been warned.)
Fourteen. Fourteen American yards. On 17 punts. Didn’t even average one yard per punt return. Richaud Floyd had the unique distinction of returning 3 punts for -4 yards.
Gary Pinkel once said that all he wanted from a punt return was 10 yards. I think that’s a good start. And whether it’s Badie or someone new, we need competence in the returning department to help improve overall special teams usage.
Josh Matejka, Deputy Manager: There’s no one thing you can point to as a true indicating factor of the special teams mediocrity. However, there are definitely a few things to keep in mind as the unit tries to right the ship headed into the season.
Despite having a wealth of water bug athletes, Missouri ranked 116th in total return yards last year, behind the likes of Florida International, Georgia State and (a deep silence envelopes the crowd) Kansas. Of course, the offense was more than talented enough to make up for the lack of a return game, but think of how much easier things could have been if Missouri had averaged more than 2.6 yards per punt return. TWO POINT SIX!!! That’s an interest rate, not a punt return average! There’s a thought that you make your own luck in college football, and gaining a whole 2.6 yards on each punt return is about as useful as punching out a mirror under a ladder while a parade of black cats crosses your path.
It also doesn’t help that — despite being fourth in the NCAA in made field goals — Tucker McCann only connected at a rate of 72.7 percent, good for 58th in the country. McCann isn’t Roberto Aguayo, but he’s better than that. If McCann is going to get as many opportunities as he did last season, bumping that percentage up a few points would do wonders for the team and the unit.
Sammy Stava, Editor: When I think of special teams, I think of doing the little things right. For whatever reason, when you rank 104th in this department, everything has gone wrong. Penalties, turnovers - you name it - this unit was one of the least disciplined teams in the country last season. Is it a coincidence that Andy Hill was named the special teams coordinator and everything went south for this unit? It better not be, as things desperately need to change heading into this season.
Tucker McCann’s reputation has fluctuated throughout his career, but most fans now regard him as a solid, if unspectacular, kicker at the college level. Does McCann have another level in him?
Nate Edwards: I’d love for McCann to have another level in him, but he’s not responsible for snapping the ball, holding the ball, and stopping the bad men from getting their hands on the ball. You can nail a field goal from the moon, but if the opponent is free to knock it out of the air, it doesn’t matter. Granted, he is also curiously off with PATs (51 for 54 last year) and 84% on FGs from under 40 yards away, but a) I point back to the snapping/holding/blocking, and b) the rule of college kickers is that you just hope the misses aren’t soul-crushing which - if memory serves me correctly - he’s mostly avoided (that’s the benefit of being terrible on a repugnant ‘16 squad).
Josh Matejka: “It depends on what you mean by, ‘another level,’” he said as if he hadn’t written the damn question.
As mentioned above, McCann got a ton of opportunities last season, yet only connected less than three quarters of the time. That’s a far cry from his sophomore season when he emerged as one of the most consistent kickers in college football at 88.24 percent. That percentage would have placed in the top ten last year, cementing his place as one of the elite kickers in the country.
The next level for McCann, then, is just hitting at a more consistent rate. He’s already got arguably the biggest leg in the country — he hit last season’s longest field goal in the FBS at 57 yards. If you combine that power with even a little more reliability, the Tigers will have a weapon they can deploy from almost anywhere on their side of the field.
Sammy Stava: Tucker McCann has had an inconsistent college career, but I do think he has another level in him entering his senior season. Most notably, the 57-yard field goal against South Carolina last season shows that he is capable of anything. McCann’s field goal percentage went from 50% (6/12) in his freshman year, to 88.2% (15/17) in his sophomore year, to 72.7% (24/33) in his junior year. In a season like this for Missouri, every game is crucial, and every point is going to matter. The Tigers are bound to be in close games, so they’ll need everything out of McCann that they can get. If McCann can get back to his sophomore numbers, that can do wonders for the special teams production.
Corey Fatony is gone after four memorable years as an undeniable fan favorite and in his place is... well, Tucker McCann. Does the kicker pulling double-duty worry you at all?
Nate Edwards: If Tucker McCann has to kickoff, handle field goals and PATs, AND punt on top of that, I’m afraid that his leg will just randomly fly off. Michael Dickson of Texas Bowl fame showed us the immense value of punting, but I’d rather McCann handle the scoring portion of kicking and let some walk-on handle punts. So, Josh Dodge, step on up and make it happen. Hell, I’d rather see Larry Rountree punt before McCann. I’m sure Jordan Elliott has a cannon for a leg. Channel your inner Vince Wilfork and show us some punting prowess!
Josh Matejka: Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes and yes. We’ve seen first-hand what having a good punter can do for a team — I still have nightmares about Michael Dickson.
However, there’s going to be a dropoff from My Large Adult Son Corey Fatony no matter who you throw out there. Why on earth would you risk fatigue and injury to your kicker — again, potentially one of the best in the country if he puts the pieces together — when some random walk on could probably at least do a manageable job.
If Odom truly believes in his defense this year, he’ll give them the opportunity to prove themselves by putting out an unproven punter. That may not be the most ideal scenario, but it’s far better than finding yourself without a reliable kicker because some FCS special teamer got overzealous and jacked up McCann’s knee in a throwaway game.
Sammy Stava: Corey Fatony’s punts decreased from 81 to 66 to 58 to 50 throughout his career, which is good because the offense was doing its job! If that continues, McCann may not have to punt as much this season, so the double-duty doesn’t exactly worry me too much. I think it’s something the coaching staff can try out, but if this experience isn’t working, then they can turn to an actual punter in Josh Dodge.