Scooter Hobbs column: Good day to clean up special teams

Published 11:20 am Saturday, September 24, 2022

In response to numerous concerned inquiries, yes, we have an uplifting update.

LSU will in fact don itself in the white helmets and trousers for Saturday’s purple jersey game with New Mexico, I guess it is.

The story went public Wednesday, the same day the helpful instructions from this fox hole made newsprint.

That could be a mere coincidence, but I prefer to see it as more proof that one person — even me, maybe even you — can make a difference.

So breathe a sigh of relief. That’s settled.

What’s next?

The Tigers pulled maybe the upset of the year in beating Mississippi State last week. Not the final score, mind you, 31-16. But the game turned in LSU’s favor on a bona fide special teams play.

Fancy that.

Just when you thought the Tigers’ third phase ought to be renamed Slapstick Teams, lo and behold somebody made a special play.

Sort of.

True, they were somewhat innocent bystanders to an unforced error by the Bulldogs. But at least give deep snapper Slade Roy credit for hustling down there.

After tending to his main duty on the punting team, he was Slade on the spot when State’s Austin Williams muffed the punt. Gobbled it up at the 9-yard line like a lizard snagging a house fly.

It led to LSU’s go-ahead touchdown. For now it will have to go down as the special teams moment of the season.

And head coach Brian Kelly said, the 4.5-second hang time on the punt contributed.

Most of the rest, however, has been hard to watch, at least for those not inclined to the farcical.

Kelly is putting the blame on himself, noting they’ve got to coach it better. No doubt the pressure is on “special” teams coach Brian Polian, perhaps Kelly’s most trusted advisor and the lone assistant who followed him to LSU from Notre Dame.

Where to start?

There was the chip-shot field goal attempt and an extra point blocked in the opener against Florida State, which got the bulk of the blame for that one-point loss.

It apparently stemmed from faulty blocking and there haven’t been any real incidents there since.

But three games in it’s been like plugging one hole in the levee and having three more leaks sprout.

Fourth down, for instance. The band still plays that creepy music when the Tigers’ defense forces one to get off the field.

But for LSU fans the punt is now best viewed with eyes closed.

There were the two muffs lost to Florida State by Malik Nabors, who has no such problems tracking down passes.

Gregory Clayton has taken over and can catch them, but it’s often when or where he shouldn’t — such as fielding one on his own 3-yard line last week.

Then, later, he came rushing in at a rolling punt surrounded by Bulldogs, and suddenly, needlessly, dove on it from afar. The home crowd had a sonic gasp when he briefly appeared to lose control before gathering it up.

Kelly’s first thought, he said, was “What are you doing?” and prepared to bite Clayton’s head off. Clayton’s defense was that he was afraid one of his own teammates might have touched it.

“I really couldn’t come back with anything else other than, ‘OK, let’s take a look at it on film.’ He’s trying to make the right play,” Kelly said.

Seems a fairly easy thing to get coached up and corrected. But Clayton may have to take a number and wait his turn.

If there was a part that almost kept LSU from winning last week, it was coverage, punts and kickoffs.

State’s only two punt returns went for 26 and 22 yards. Maybe the scariest moment came when it appeared the Tigers could get comfortable with a 31-16 lead, but promptly gave up an 88-yard kickoff return down to their own 12-yard line. They were bailed out by a flag for holding (away from the action) on that one.

“We’ve got to coach it better,” Kelly said. “I’ve got to be involved in that.”

With the meat of the SEC schedule looming, this weekend might be a convenient time to get things tidied up.

Scooter Hobbs covers LSU athletics. Email him at scooter.hobbs@americanpress.com