Mark Dantonio demands more from Michigan State's special teams units

Share on

With his offense and defense clicking, MSU coach wants to see improvement from his special teams.

EAST LANSING — Offense? Not bad.

Defense? Looking good.

Special teams? That’s where Mark Dantonio wants Michigan State to improve.

It may appear as nitpicking, but the Spartans have work to do on their kicking, coverage and return games before they host Notre Dame on Sept. 23 (8 p.m./Fox).

“Statistically, offense and defense, I thought we were pretty dominant,” Dantonio said of wins over Bowling Green and Western Michigan. “Where we need to be better is on special teams. We need to continue to work.”

The knee-jerk reaction is to look at the 100-yard kickoff return from Darius Phillips last week the Spartans allowed in a 28-14 win over the Broncos. But deeper than that, there remains issues.

 

 

 

That touchdown return of Brett Scanlon’s boot is a big reason why MSU is 120th out of 128 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in kickoff defense, allowing 30.44 yards on nine returns with two touchbacks.

Scanlon, a senior transfer from WMU, previously served as the Spartans’ scout team punter and kicker.

“You know, he’s been pretty good,” Dantonio said. “He kicked one a little flat this past week, which we can't have, but I think he's solid. He's a team guy. He's got toughness, and I think he's a big competitor."

On the flip side, new MSU return man Darrell Stewart is averaging 24.3 yards on his three kickoff returns. The Spartans’ team average of 21.25 yards on four runbacks is tied for 63rd nationally.

The Spartans are averaging just 5.43 yards on punt returns this season, which is 73rd in FBS. Though MSU has just seven return attempts on the 16 punts directed its way, that total is tied for sixth-most in the division, with just Michigan (9), Clemson, Penn State, Boise State and Old Dominion (8) having tried more. Only Clemson (5.38) and UAB (1.86) are averaging fewer yards with seven-or-more punt returns.

mark-dantonio-demands-more-from-michigan-states-special-teams-units photo 1

White team wide receiver Darrell Stewart Jr. returns the kick during the Green and White Spring Game on Saturday, April 23, 2016 at Spartan Stadium. (Photo: Julia Nagy, Lansing State Journal)

MSU started deploying both Stewart and Laress Nelson at the same time — one short and one deep — last week against WMU. Sophomore Stewart has five returns for 20 yards, while true freshman Nelson has two for 18 yards, including a slippery 15-yard return against the Broncos.

Dantonio sounded like he wants to give Nelson more chances to be the main guy on punt returns.

“He's very confident, very sure-handed,” Dantonio said. “He’s demonstrated what he can do in practice over and over. We'll see where he's at this next week. But he's gifted. He's gifted. He's very quick and he can get north.”

The Spartans have only had one punt returned against their coverage team for 10 years. Junior Jake Hartbarger is averaging 43.8 yards per boot, but his net average of 39.67 is tied for 49th nationally. Some of that is a result of kicking away from Phillips last week, who touched the ball for just one fair catch on eight punts.

“We knew their returner was an explosive guy, and we saw that on the kickoff,” Hartbarger said Saturday of Phillips. “The game plan was to keep it out of his hands, kick it out of bounds, try to put it on the sideline or have good hang time so he was going to have to fair catch the ball. … It was pretty effective.”

MSU also ranks 12th out of 14 Big Ten teams in average starting field position through two games according to College Football Analytics, beginning drives around their 29-yard-line. That’s 92nd nationally in FBS.

And new redshirt freshman kicker Matt Coghlin has yet to make a field-goal attempt, though he is perfect on nine point-after kicks.

“Every kick he's hit, he's hit with balls popping and he's hitting good,” Dantonio said of Coghlin. “I guess we just have to wait our turn.”

That’s certainly neither the fault of Coghlin or the Spartans’ offense. MSU has touchdowns on 7 of 8 trips to the red zone, with LJ Scott’s goal-line fumble the only scoreless trip.

“As long as we're winning,” Coghlin said, “extra points are good enough.”

Contact Chris Solari: csolari@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @chrissolari. Download our Spartans Xtra app for free on Apple and Android devices!

Share on
Article Mark Dantonio demands more from Michigan State's special teams units compiled by Original article here