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Get To Know Your New Coaching Staff: Erik Link

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Did you know a college football team can have a coach on staff whose sole job is to make sure the special teams don’t suck? Incredible! Meet the guy who will be doing that job this year.

STORY TIME: I used to work with a guy who was the kicker for the Missouri Tiger football team during the late aughts. He would occasionally share stories of his experiences during the his tenure with me as I was always willing to hear behind-the-scenes stories of what it was like to go through practices and games. He was an excellent soccer player growing up and an avid golfer as well, so placekicking was a logical spot for him to fill. However, one thing that he pointed out to me many years ago, and still sticks with me today, is this: college football coaches have no idea how to coach kickers. At the time of his kicking service, David Yost was carrying the “special teams coordinator” title for Pinkel’s staff but he said his interactions with Coach Yost would, typically, go like this:

Yost: “Heeeeeeeeeey, saw you missed that last kick. Was that...45 yards?”

Kicker: “Yes, sir.”

Yost: “Coooooooooool, yeah uh....make it next time, huh?”

That was it. That was the coaching he got for that day. And most days, for that matter. He said a typical week featured kickoff strategy with Coach Steckel and the entire special teams unit, kick the ball at the goalpost for about 30 minutes every day, and then go lift for an hour and go home.

My point is that coaching special teams is hard because the crux of the unit is the one thing that most players aren’t allowed to do: kicking the ball. And, unless you’re Urban Meyer or Mike Norvell, your special teams units are made up of freshman and backups who don’t see much playing time and might not be as good as the offensive and defensive starters. We gave a lot of crap to Odom for fielding a poor special teams unit, but Nick Saban has fielded garbage special teams for decades with only a few instances of that ruining a season.

I like the idea of a coach stepping up and only focusing on that. In theory, that should mean that the guys in that unit get enough direct coaching that they can execute better. The downside, however, is that successful special teams rely so heavily on some dude kicking a ball and that concept is really hard for most coaches to improve. Being a college kicker is hard!

So now we get to Mr. Erik Link. Let’s take a peek at his resume:

Erik Link’s Coaching History

The dude is an Iowa guy through and through. Graduated from Drake, coached several high school teams in the state, and hung out with Gene Chizik’s terrible Iowa State teams. He does have analyst experience under Gus Malzahn’s Auburn crew and has prior special teams coordinating experience at Montana State, Louisiana Tech, and App State. He has four full seasons of coordinating special teams, which is certainly more than anyone on last year’s staff could claim. Yay, progress... I guess?

Erik Link’s link (lol) to the rest of the staff

  • At Auburn with Eli Drinkwitz, Curtis Luper, and Casey Woods in 2010
  • Also at Auburn with Charlie Harbison in 2013-2014
  • At Appalachian State with Drinkwitz, D.J. Smith, and Harbison last year

Is he good at what he does?

As previously mentioned, he’s been a full-time Special Teams Coordinator for four (4) seasons: two at Montana State, one at Louisiana Tech, and one at Appalachian State. Link’s bio cites the massive successes of the two excellent Auburn teams that he did grunt work for and lavishes praises on his Appalachian State’s special teams prowess of 2019. But that’s not really telling me what I want to know about his ability to change a special teams unit. So, because FCS data is harder to come by, and his brief tenure at LaTech and App State are more recent, let’s see how those teams did before (and after, for the Bulldogs) Link showed up.

Louisiana Tech Special Teams SP+ Performance:

2014: 107th

2015: 63rd

2016: 63rd

2017: 50th

2018 (here’s where Link shows up): 116th

2019 (Link is at App State now): 65th

Yikes! In this six year sample, Link’s tenure over the Bulldog special teams unit was THE worst year of the bunch. Punt returner Teddy Veal was excellent and punter Davan Dyer were pretty good, but the rest of the special teams were capital B- BAD:

  • Kickoff efficiency: 125th
  • Kickoff return efficiency: 118th
  • Field Goal efficiency: 100th

And this wasn’t because LaTech was trotting out a bunch of freshmen, either. Kicker Bailey Hale was part of that 2017 unit and 2019 unit: in 2018 he went 12-for-14 on field goals within 40 yards, 3-for-8 on field goals beyond 40 yards, and rarely got a touchback on kickoffs, leading to a crazy amount of return yardage for the opponent. In 2019, he went 15-18 on field goals, ranking 27th in the nation in efficiency, and improved his touchback percentage. The real difference, however, was the 2019 Bulldogs ranked 18th in kick return efficiency. And all they had to do was....ya know...have Erik Link leave :(

Ok, so that was Louisiana Tech. Maybe it was just a weird circumstance, eh? Let’s do the same exercise for App State.

Appalachian State Special Teams SP+ Performance:

2015: 75th

2016: 75th

2017: 99th

2018: 34th

2019 (Link’s year): 56th

Yeesh. Not the worst of the sample size, but definitely regressed from 2018. That 2018 unit, by the way, returned EVERYONE for 2019 and somehow regressed:

Punt efficiency: 38th in 2018 to 46th in 2019

Field goal accuracy: 80% in 2018 to 68% in 2019

The return units maintained their Top 25 status since both returners from 2019 were still around for 2019, but the kickoff and punt defense units regressed to 61st and 46th, respectively.

Is it true that Appalachian State blocked seven kicks and had none of their kicks blocked? Yes, yes it is. Does the raw yardage for returns rank highly? Yes. But where those yards come from is important, and while blocking kicks is important and good (it’s how they beat Michigan in 2007 and North Carolina in 2019), they are not reliable plays to be made. Disciplined returns and return defense, paired with accurate legs, is how you make a solid special teams unit and, in two stops with two different teams, I haven’t seen that from Coach Link.

Here’s the TL;DR version of the hire:

Pros

  • Always a good idea to have one dedicated person to coach a unit
  • Has done this job before
  • His 2019 App State special teams were in the top half of the country

Cons

  • At the FBS level, the special teams units he inherited regress
  • Has not stayed in one place long enough to see the full effect of his coaching

Conclusion

Hard to say! He’s very much like Eli Drinkwitz in that there’s just not enough data on him at what we hired him to do to get a good grasp of how he will perform. I’m certainly willing to see what he can do and endorse the decision to have a dedicated coordinator for special teams. Missouri’s special teams, by the way, ranked 49th in the country according to SP+. Here’s the breakdown:

  • Field Goal Value: 62nd
  • Punt Efficiency: 45th
  • Kickoff Efficiency: 2nd
  • Punt Return Efficiency: 119th
  • Kick Return Efficiency: 103rd

With Tucker McCann gone you can expect Punt and Kickoff efficiency to drop off, but the returns are going to be ripe for opportunities to improve. So... go earn that money, Erik Link!