If there’s an area of Saturday’s Iron Bowl showdown where the Tigers have the upper hand, it belongs with special teams, and Auburn coach Gene Chizik believes that could prove to be a difference maker.
“I think special teams can always have an opportunity to win games, no question about it,” he said. “I think the field position battles give the team an opportunity to win. It’s invaluable. We’ve had games where for a whole half, we’ve had guys starting inside their own 20. When you do the percentages on chances to score touchdowns when they start inside the 20, it’s very low, and to do it consistently, it’s hard for people to do, so just that in itself, and being able to keep the ball on the other side of the 50-yard line. That’s going to be a huge emphasis for us, no question about it.”
Auburn’s special teams’ prowess started with the very first game when freshman Tre Mason returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown.
Later in the game, Auburn recovered an onside kick to set up the game-winning drive.
“I can definitely argue that out of our seven wins this year, special teams have definitely played an enormous part in almost every one,” Chizik said. “That’s where it started in game one, but you can see in most every phase right now (that) we’ve played well on special teams.”
Auburn brings two major weapons to the table on special teams named Steven Clark and Cody Parkey.
Clark, a finalist for the Ray Guy Award, has punted 64 times for an average of 40.4 yards per punt.
Only eight of Clark’s punts have been returned, and there have been 33 fair catches and two touchbacks. Of the eight returns, four have gone for zero or negative yardage.
He leads the SEC and is second in the FBS with 30 punts inside the 20-yard line and hasn’t had a punt blocked this season.
“We always go out expecting to win on special teams,” Clark said. “That’s a foundation in our game plan. We just try to execute and do our jobs - me and Cody and (deep snapper) Josh Harris and everybody else. We try to do our part.”
Parkey, meanwhile, has made 11 of 15 field goals and is second in the SEC and third in the FBS with 31 kickoffs for touchbacks.
Opponents’ average starting field position after Parkey’s kickoffs is the 22-yard line, a tribute both to Parkey and the Tigers’ kick coverage.
Freshman safety Robenson Therezie leads the Tigers in special teams’ tackles with four, but coverage has definitely been a group effort, with 19 different players recording at least one tackle.
“We feel very confident in all four aspects of special teams,” Parkey said. “In field goal and everything. We’ve got a great snapper, a great holder, a great punter, we have all the aspects going for us, so we feel like we can be a big part in this game and contribute in every way possible.”
Jay Boulware is Auburn’s special teams’ coordinator. He says his units could play a big role in Saturday’s game, but looks at it as more of a collaborative effort between all phases.
“I don’t think that we on special teams ever win a game by ourselves,” Boulware said. “It’s a team effort. We may make some plays that enhance our opportunities, but we don’t win the games. It’s offense, defense, special teams. We play very similar to a lot of NFL teams.”
While Boulware coordinates the Tigers’ special teams, it takes a group effort by the entire staff to make Auburn’s special teams special.
“I feel like we do a really, really nice job of covering the details of our special teams,” Chizik said. “Coach Boulware is our special teams coordinator, and we’ve been together five years now. It’s been a progression over five years getting to this point. I think it all starts with how important they are to you and what emphasis you place on those special teams, but he does a good job leading it. Most every other coach on our staff is involved in some way or another with those, but we put a lot of meeting time, a lot of practice time into what we do on special teams, so it is very important to us.”