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Editorial: Why LSU’s Special Team is Struggling

When Gregory Clayton jogged off the field after fielding a questionable punt, LSU coach Brian Kelly’s first reaction was confusion.

In the first half, as the Tigers were trying to get anything started offensively, a punted ball landed between a field of players, both LSU and Mississippi State. Clayton pounced on it as the ball rolled closer, causing a massive pile-up for the ball.

LSU came away with the ball but not without causing quite a few hearts to skip a beat and for Kelly to ask his punt returner what he was thinking. As Clayton would explain to Kelly on the sidelines, it looked as if the ball had hit another LSU player, forcing him to decide to secure the ball, even with a number of Bulldogs players in the area.

“As he explained his position on it. You can’t come back with anything other than, ” Okay, let’s take a look at it on film,” Kelly said. “Maybe we can help you with that decision-making in the future. But he’s trying to make the right play.

“When you’re looking at it, it’s close, but again, that goes to awareness and maybe we could have coached him better. If he saw some Mississippi State players moving towards the ball, maybe that’s the cue that you fall on it.”

In terms of special teams, those decisions lie in the gray for coaches as it’s difficult to coach a player on what he sees in that particular situation. The play was just one example of some issues that have cropped up on special teams in the first three weeks.

Of course, many who follow this team know of the blocking issues with the field goal unit against Florida State and the muffed punts. Saturday against Mississippi State, Clayton also lost where he was on the field and tracked a punt inside the five-yard line that he fielded. The rule of thumb on punt returns is for the returner not to let his heels get inside the 10-yard line and instead just let the punt go in that situation.

A couple of kickoffs were also returned for significant gains because, as Kelly described, the kicks were too flat and, like line drives, not giving the kickoff unit enough time to get down the field and make a play. As Kelly explained on Monday, the Tigers must do a better job coaching those situations, and the players need to absorb that instruction.

“We just need to be better all over the place. That falls on Brian [Polian], that falls on me. We all have to do a better job then. And our players have to commit themselves and understand how important special teams is,” Kelly said.

LSU has been wobbly on special teams in two of the three games this season, but a muffed punt from Mississippi State down in its own RedZone also helped the Tigers get the go-ahead score, thanks to the quick recovery of long snapper Slade Roy.

Special teams can often be overlooked, but particularly in college, they can also be what dictates a win and a loss. LSU has been on both ends of the spectrum this season and needs to be more consistent moving forward.