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2021 Position Postmortem: Specialists

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A review of the specialist performance for the 2021 season.

NCAA Football: Florida at Missouri Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

With the 2021 season officially over, it’s time to break down the performance of the team position by position. We’ll look at the stats for the year, the departing players, new additions, and some predictions for what we’ll see in 2022.

Harrison Mevis and Grant McKinniss were two of the best in the country at putting their foot on the ball and making it do stuff that was good. Thiccer returns but who will become the next great punter? And will the Tigers have have an elite return unit?

There’s a theory posited by Bud Elliott - formerly of SB Nation, currently of 247 - that having good luck in close football games comes down to three things: clock management, quarterback play, and special teams. In 2020 the clock management was - fine? - but with a quarterback who didn’t make many mistakes and a Top 25 special teams unit the Tigers were able to go 3-0 in one-score games. In 2021 the clock management was again passable and the special teams play was the 11th-best in the country, but the quarterback play was more mistake-prone and, subsequently, Missouri went 2-3 in one-score games.

So special teams play is important, huh? It’s an entire third of the game but tends to get overlooked in recruiting. To wit: there’s never been a 5-star kicker or punter - and it’s only been a recent development that those positions consistently receive scholarships to play - but even Nick Saban has been felled by a lackluster special teams unit multiple times in his career.

Missouri has been #blessed to have Harrison “The Thiccer” Mevis and Grant McKinniss on their roster the past two years, but 1. McKinniss is out of eligibility, and 2. the return game still isn’t quite where it should be. Indeed, thanks to Mevis’ automatic leg, Sean Koetting’s unflappable ability to always knock the kickoff out of the end zone, and McKinniss’ strategic bombing of punts, Missouri was the highest-ranked special teams unit for most of the 2021 season. That is, it was until Thiccer missed a few field goals and the kick/punt return guys stopped effectively returning the ball. Mevis and Koetting return - and it sounds like Koetting will be taking over punt responsibilities - but Missouri needs a few guys to step it up in the return game department to field a truly elite special teams unit. Elijah Young returned five kickoffs for 96 total yards and Kris Abrams-Draine averaged 22.4 yards per kick return (anything over 20 is good) but only returned one punt for 2 yards. Similarly, Boo Smith only returned 11 total punts for a measly 5-yard average, well below the national average.

Elite special teams aren’t going to outright win you a game but they’ll certainly put you in a position to hang around and pull and upset or fend off a usurper. That’s a luxury the baby Tigers need to utilize in the next few years.

The Departed

NCAA Football: North Texas at Missouri Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports
Grant McKinniss’ Career Stats

He was never in serious contention for the Ray Guy award, but Grant McKinniss was a secretly excellent punter. His 41.4 average yards per punt was slightly below the national average but he only allowed returns on 25% of his punts, which led to a slightly above average net yard average of 39.6. He had his punts downed inside the 20 at an excellent 43.8% rate and almost achieved the ever-elusive 4-second hang time all special teams coaches want, finishing with an average of 3.91 seconds. Sean Koetting got an extended punting audition during the bowl game and was a more extreme version of McKinniss but he’ll certainly be a sorely-missed fixture from the Tigers special teams unit.

The Returners (pun intended)

NCAA Football: Central Michigan at Missouri Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

First, look upon the beauty that is Harrison Mevis’ kicking stats and weep at its glory:

Ass. Kickies. Ass and kickies.

Perfect on extra points for his career. One missed field goal less than 40 yards away. and 82.6% accuracy on field goals greater than 40 yards away. A total made field goal percentage of 88.9%. Let’s put it this way: if Harrison Mevis’ thick, beautiful foot touches the football in some capacity, he will obtain points for his effort 95.6% of the time. And we could potentially enjoy his services for another three years.

He’s also gone from weighing 220 pounds to weighing 257 pounds in his three years on campus, meaning he’s averaging an 18.5 pound weight gain per year. With those numbers he wouldn’t hit 300 pounds by the time he exhausts his eligibility but would get close at 294. Can it be done? The Thiccer Burger that bears his name argues that, yes, it can.

Sean Koetting Stats

Sean Koetting walked on to the team in 2017, and since Eli Drinkwitz took over, has been a touchback machine as a kickoff man. Koetting has kicked off 133 times in his career and only allowed a return on 19 of them, effectively neutralizing any threat that the opposing return man can provide. Admittedly, that’s easier to do in the modern game than it has in years past, but it’s still a very important aspect to special teams play and one that Koetting has delivered consistently.

In the kick returns department, Kris Abram-Draine, Boo Smith, Elijah Young, Jaylon Carlies, and B.J. Harris combined to face 41 kicks and return 29 of them for 597 yards and a touchdown. Of course, 21 of those returns, 471 of those yards, and the touchdown were courtesy of KAD, so he’s clearly the best of the batch here. However, as previously mentioned, the punt return unit was mostly someone standing back and fielding it cleanly as Boo Smith and KAD combined for 12 returns and 57 yards. While it’s nice to not screw up that aspect of special teams, it would be nice to get 5-10 yards per return to give the offense a little less yardage to have to gain.

Oh - and to be all inclusive here - long snappers Jake Hoffman and Daniel Hawthorne both return for the 2022 season. Having experienced long snappers is a good thing!

Incoming!

NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Stanford Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

Realistically, the only place you could really see an infusion of new blood is in the returner position for kicks and punts. Again, KAD did pretty well in the kickoff returning department but there’s also the fact that transfer Nathaniel Peat and #1 ranked wide receiver Luther Burden are really good at returning punts and kicks.

At East St. Louis, Burden amassed 852 yards via punt return resulting in several touchdowns for his efforts. For all of the praise heaped on him due to his abilities as a receiver, many who have watched him remark how he’s an even better punt returner.

At Stanford, Nathaniel Peat faced 27 kicks and turned that into 27 returns for 663 yards, or 24.6 yards per return. Earlier last week Martez Manuel - Peat’s high school teammate at Rock Bridge - remarked at how Peat would consistently turn on the jets and leave defenders in the dust with the ball in his hands. He should definitely be in consideration for returning responsibilities this fall as well.

2022 Forecasting

  • Prediction: Thiccer and Koetting are your starting foot people, Peat and KAD split kick return duties, Burden takes over as punt returner at some point.
  • Bold Prediction: Missouri has both a kick return and a punt return for a touchdown
  • HOT TAKE: Thiccer obtains at least three more food establishment sponsorships with Mevis-named food. He then creates a food tour franchise where he takes people to various restaurants in CoMo that have his specialty items. The tour ends at Faurot Field where, in a surprise challenge, Mevis informs you that you don’t have to pay for the experience if you can kick a 25-yard field goal. It becomes the most popular attraction of central Missouri and our beloved Thiccer rides the popularity of his kicking-glories and his popular business to a life-time appointment as Mayor of Columbia.