“That’s a good thing,” Boulware said. “If you guys never talk to me, that means I still have a job.”
Auburn’s special teams coach was a popularly requested interview subject last season because of his group’s difficulties. The struggles didn’t sit well with Boulware, the lone coach to follow Gene Chizik from Iowa State to Auburn’s coaching staff.
There are plenty of questions for Boulware to answer on special teams, beginning with the punt return group. Auburn punt returners fumbled or muffed nine punts in 13 games a year ago.
As a result, hopeful return specialists have worked through a variety of unconventional drills, such as allowing a punt to bounce off the top of the returner’s helmet.
Boulware said he had been impressed with Philip Pierre-Louis before the sophomore injured his knee last week. Pierre-Louis was one of the returners last year. Like all of them, he struggled with consistently catching the punts.
While the punt return group had regular problems, the kick returners had some success. Demond Washington highlighted the strong campaign with a 100-yard return for a touchdown against Georgia last year. Washington said he hopes he can again be in the mix and Mario Fannin, who returned kicks a year ago, is back as well.
Boulware also oversaw kicker Wes Byrum’s drastic turnaround. Byrum struggled as a sophomore, making just 7 of 14 kicks of 30 yards or longer. He bounced back last year by making 15 of 16 field goal attempts.
Punter Clinton Durst also enjoyed a strong season, but must be replaced. Ryan Shoemaker, who was voted as an all-SEC punter before Durst beat him out in 2008, has no competition this spring.
Boulware has made sure to let Shoemaker know he doesn’t have a clear path to the position. True freshman Steven Clark will get an opportunity to surpass Shoemaker on the depth chart once he arrives on campus this summer.
That, Boulware said, has provided Shoemaker with plenty of motivation to lift his game to new heights.
“It’s amazing ... Shoemaker’s gone through the roof since he saw him step on campus and realized that he’s going to have a little competition,” Boulware said.
Boulware said he considers Clark a more prototypical punter because of his size. He has also been impressed with Clark’s performances in clinics this year.
The real questions come from the protection teams. Auburn ranked in the bottom half in each coverage stat last year.
Boulware said numbers are still a problem on kick and punt coverage units and probably will be until the freshman reinforcements start rolling in during the summer.
Until then, Boulware is still balancing starters who can take on a few more plays with walk-ons.
“You have to rely on guys that are on our team now because those are the guys that have been in our system for a whole year,” Boulware said. “Those freshmen, yeah, they’ll get better and better and better as the year goes on, but to start off the season when we first kick off, it’s going to be guys we played with last year.
“They’re going to have to come out and step up for us until those true freshmen that we get to work with for a month before we get to play our first game are actually ready to go, which won’t be, as you guys know, three or four weeks into the season before they have a good clue of what to do and are ready to step in.”
Come six months from now, Boulware hopes the interview requests are lighter than last year. That, he knows, will mean Auburn’s special teams have turned the corner.