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The Mizzou Special: Breaking down the Mizzou’s special teams unit

The Tigers have shown flashes on special teams, but their weaknesses have made the unit a net negative so far this season.

NCAA Football: Louisiana Tech at Missouri Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Inconsistent.

That 12-letter word may not be what Missouri Tigers football fans envisioned for the special teams unit, which is spearheaded by All-American Harrison “Thiccer Kicker” Mevis, but it epitomizes what the Mizzou specialists have looked like thus far.

The usually automatic Mevis battled through a two-week stretch with three field goals misses, including a potential game-winning miss from 26 yards out against Auburn. On the punting side, the Tigers are still searching for their heir to Grant McKinniss after swapping punters three weeks into the season.

Mizzou’s punt return defense, when challenged, ranks as the nation’s worst. If not for Sean Koetting’s kickoff expertise, which has resulted in touchbacks on 29 of his 33 attempts, the entire unit’s success would be challenged.

Luther Burden has taken over punt return duties, showcasing potential with his 78-yard touchdown return against Abilene Christian. Since then, however, he’s faced injuries and continued setbacks. On kickoffs, Kris Abrams-Draine has flashed at times, but continues to look for an opportunity to break through.

Entering the season, questions may have surrounded the unit, but a majority of fans would have described the unit with a different 12-letter word—electrifying.

Instead, for arguably first time in head coach Eliah Drinkwitz’s tenure, the special teams unit looks far from elite.

The Statistics

Kickoff Return Defense: 13.75 yards allowed per return (5th in NCAA)

Touchbacks: 29 (6th)

Kickoff Return Offense: 17.83 yards per return (106th)

Punt Return Defense: 35.20 yards allowed per return (131st - worst)

Punt Return Offense: 16.57 yards per return (8th)

NET Punting: 34.94 net yards per punt (120th)

FG%: 78.6% (48th)

FGM: 11 (T-11th)

Blocked Kicks: 1 (T-35th)

Blocked Kicks Allowed: 0 (T-1st)

Blocked Punts: 0 (T-45th)

Blocked Punts Allowed: 0 (T-1st)

There’s a lot to unpack here, so let’s break it down.

The Positives

I’d be lying if I didn’t say that several of these areas are cause for optimism within the Mizzou Football program.

For one, Koetting’s sheer talent at limiting kickoffs gives the Tigers quite an advantage. Rather than facing an opponent’s kick returner, Mizzou can essentially guarantee they will start their defensive drive on the opponents’ 25-yard-line.

From a defensive standpoint, that advantage has paid off. Take the Oct. 8 matchup against the Florida Gators, for example. Koetting kicked off only four times, each resulting in a touchback. On those four possessions, the Gators went fumble - halftime - missed field goal, interception.

In fact, of Koetting’s 33 kickoffs, here are the results of the ensuing opponent drive:

  • Touchdowns: 6
  • Field Goals Made: 4
  • Turnovers: 7
  • Field Goals Missed: 2
  • Punt: 13
  • Half: 1

The Tigers have allowed 148 points this season, however, only 54 (36.5%) of those occurred following a Koetting kickoff. It’s evident that the defense responds to the Koetting’s success, boding well for the future.

Another positive comes in the form of a name Mizzou fans will be hearing for the next three years— Burden.

The freshman receiver looked the part of a star returner in high school, amassing 852 yards via punt return and taking several of those back for touchdowns. He replicated the feat in his first start at the position against Abilene Christian, putting the SEC on notice.

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The Tigers rank fourth in the SEC with 16.57 yards per punt return, and there is reason to believe it’ll only become more explosive with a healthy Burden in the open field. Although hampered, the freshman has over 100 punt return yards, which ranks in the top-five of the SEC.

Three of Mizzou’s remaining opponents—Tennessee, Arkansas and Vanderbilt—all rank in the bottom third of the NCAA in punt return defense as well, providing an opportunity for fans to see more fireworks.

Needs Work

Placing an All-American kicker who made a 56-yard field goal against the No. 1 Georgia Bulldogs in the “needs work” category feels like a mistake.

However, Mevis missed two of his four attempts against Abilene Christian as well as his lone attempt against Auburn. The latter miss is one that will haunt Mizzou fans as the Tigers continue their hunt for a bowl bid.

While the Auburn loss is not solely to blame on Mevis, that 26-yarder is a kick he could make in his sleep. The miss embodied the early season struggles for Mizzou while emphasizing the growth that needs to come from the special teams position.

Even with the rocky start, the junior is tied for 11th in field goals (11) and will enter Homecoming weekend with the nation’s 48th-best field goal percentage (78.6%). Those numbers offer a stark contrast from last season, where he finished 23 of 25, but there’s still time for Mevis to bounce back.

NCAA Football: Missouri at Florida Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

In fact, one could argue he’s already on his way back. Against Georgia, The Thiccer went 5-for-5, including the aforementioned 56-yard field goal as well as three other 40+ yard makes (40, 49 and 52) en route to being named the SEC Co-Special Teams Player of the Week. He then made his lone attempt against Florida, a 28-yarder. If that’s not a promising sign, then I don’t know what is.

Mizzou will continue to lean on its All-American kicker because who wouldn’t. As long as Mevis continues to use the Auburn game as motivation, there’s a serious chance he won’t miss a kick all-season. Take that with a grain of salt, but I do expect him to make up for the Auburn miss with a game-winner later this season.

The Negatives

For most of training camp, a battle took place at the punting position between Koetting and Jack Stonehouse.

Koetting came away victorious in the end, but the results did not translate onto the field. The fifth-year kickoff specialist punted 13 times for 521 yards, averaging 40.08 yards per punt. When comparing those totals to the national level, Koetting would rank 65th of 72 qualified punters, placing him slightly above Arkansas freshman punter Max Fletcher.

While Koetting did tally four punts of over fifty yards and four within the 20-yard line, opponents tallied 119 yards on returns against him. K-State returner Phillip Brooks took a 76-yard return to the house, exposing the punt coverage weaknesses just one week after Louisiana Tech’s Smoke Harris tallied a 43-yard return.

Stonehouse replaced Koetting in the Abilene Christian game following back-to-back 21 and 20-yard punts. In his place, Stonehouse notched punts of 53 and 47 yards, making quite the entrance.

Since that switch, the punting display has actually improved quite a bit. Stonehouse ranks fourth in the SEC in yards per punt (43.95), which would place him 25th nationally. The redshirt freshman hails from a family lineage of punters, so it’s no surprise to many to see the success.

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However, even with the positives from Stonehouse, Mizzou still ranks dead last in punt return defense. A majority of that damage stems from the returns from Brooks and Harris, but it showcases an overall coverage problem for the Tigers. On five opponent punt returns, they’ve allowed 176 yards and one touchdown.

The upside is that the small sample size indicates several fair catches and touchbacks. Even with those, the fact that opponents average 35.2 yards per return is unacceptable. In fact, there is not a single FCS program that allows over 27 punt yards per return.

That’s a serious problem for Mizzou, who likely utilized the bye week to hash some of these concerns.

Kickoff returning is another area where the Tigers have started slowly, ranking in the bottom third of the nation.

Abrams-Draine is leading the charge in that department, having five returns for 86 yards. The 17.2 yards per return places the Tigers lower than any other SEC school, and the small sample size means that Mizzou is oftentimes receiving touchbacks or taking fair catches.

While those are not necessarily bad things, those occurrences are making it essentially impossible for the offense to start with effective field position without a turnover or standout performance from the defense. As we’ve seen so far, the defense can only hold up so long and the offense has yet to prove they can score when needed, so field position means everything.

The Road Ahead

Mizzou (2-4) will face Vanderbilt, South Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, New Mexico State and Arkansas in its second half. The schedule, although difficult, will offer an opportunity for the team to possibly steal a bowl bid, if they play winning football.

A key to those victories will be the special teams, which is why it’s important to take into account all of these aforementioned statistics. Oftentimes, special teams is overlooked, but it’s essentially a third of the game. Without an effective and trustworthy unit, a season can fall into shambles.

As the Tigers continue to play deeper into the season, it’ll be crucial to keep an eye on the development of Stonehouse and Burden as they represent potential keys to the future. On the flip side, Mevis is trending toward the NFL Draft, making his results in these next two years that much more important. As a whole, the unit has an opportunity to perform among the elite, but the results so far suggest different.

Vanderbilt, another bottom-tier SEC program, will offer the first opportunity at redemption Saturday afternoon. In front of a Homecoming crowd, the Tigers will attempt to introduce fans to a new 12-letter word this season—elatedness.