This position preview covers perhaps the most important part of any football team – the special teams unit. Because kickers are people too, guys.
Furthermore, the AAC made a name for itself in the return game last season – Houston corner back Marcus Jones, ranked fourth in combined kick returns (884 yards) and punt returns (averaging 14.4 returns a game), ranked second in kickoff return touchdowns (2) and led the nation in punt return touchdowns (2).
Cincinnati running back Ryan Montgomery, SMU safety Bryan Massey and South Florida freshman running back Brian Battie all also ranked nationally in various return game categories.
The AAC was also well represented in punting by Tulane junior Ryan Wright, who ranked seventh nationally, averaging 47.53 yards per game. Tulsa’s Zack Long led the nation in field goal percentage, with an impressive 95.7 percent (22-23) and ranked ninth in field goals per game with 1.69.
This season we will see a healthy mix of familiar faces and new names on the special teams’ units in the AAC. Here’s how they rank.
Elite: These teams are dominant in the kicking game and should be at the top of the conference all season because of it.
Second Tier: These teams have talent on special teams, but there are questions in some way, shape, or form.
Wait and See: These teams have more than a couple of questions left to answer when it comes to special teams.
Tulsa: The best kicker in the conference and possibly the nation returns to Tulsa for his senior year with the aforementioned Long. He went 22-23 last year on field goals with a career long of 50 yards and 35-36 extra points.
Rugby-style punter Lachlan Wilson returns to keep opposing teams’ return game at bay. The sophomore finished third in the conference, averaging 45.7 yards per punt and pinning 21 inside the 20-yard line. With Tulane’s Ryan Wright departed, that leaves only Joe Doyle from Memphis to compete with Lachlan.
Hard to believe the best special teams unit in the AAC never played football prior to stepping on Tulsa’s campus. Props to head coach Phillip Montgomery on his eye for talent.
Cincinnati: Possibly my favorite transfer portal pick up is kicker Ryan Coe, who was second-team CAA at Delaware, where he went 14 of 17 on field goals last year. His longest was a 53-yarder against Rutgers towards the end of the Fightin’ Blue Hens season. He is the most-needed addition to the special teams unit as four players went a combined 9 of 19 last year.
Cincy’s punter Mason Fletcher is back for his sophomore year, although the 6’7”, 200-pound Aussie looks more like a tight end that a punter. Last year, Fletcher averaged 42.9 yards per punt. Expect him to settle in nicely in year two, pinning teams back or making tackles when the more elusive returners sneak through.
Also expect to see senior wide receiver Tre Tucker continue to shine in the return game – he racked up 552 combined kick return yards last season, averaging 25.3 kick return yards per game.
USF: Both kicker Spencer Shrader and punter Andrew Stokes are back. Shrader actually ended USF’s 30-game streak without a 40+ field goal back in 2020. Last year, the junior kicker went 11-13 with a long of 52 in the Bulls win over Temple. Stokes averaged 39 yards per punt last season. Solid kicking and punting will help the Bulls in big games at Cincinnati and Houston.
USF also returns sophomore running back Brian Battie, who became the Bulls second-ever consensus All-American last season. Remember his two kick-off return touchdowns in the first half against Houston? The Cougars do. Battie ranked fifth in the nation in kickoff returns last year, averaging 32.5 yards per game.
Navy: Bijan Nichols ranked third in the conference in field goals last year, converting on 15-of-19 with a long of 50 yards. The fourth-year starter enters this season ranked second all-time at Navy in career field goals made (33) and total points (204). While the Midshipmen rank in the bottom of the conference in touchdowns scored, they are fourth in FG’s, trailing only Houston, ECU and Tulsa.
Plus their punter has a year under his belt after being pushed into the position last season. Sophomore Riley Riethman had a 42.7 yard average, putting him in the middle of the AAC pack last season. Watch out for slot back Maquel Haywood to be a kick return nightmare for opposing teams.
ECU: Owen Daffer caught my attention when he went full send on a 54-yarder to beat Navy as the clock ran out. He went 19-of-23 on field goals last season, so teams better not let him get in range this year.
Punting is another story – 30-year-old redshirt freshman Luke Larsen is the guy this year to replace John Young, who was second-team All-AAC. Larsen averaged 41.2 yards on 13 punts in 2020, pinning three inside the 20-yard line.
The Pirates also lose wide receiver Tyler Snead, who was a big part of the return game, averaging 22.2 kick return yards per game.
Memphis: This will be short and sweet. Senior punter Joe Doyle handled both responsibilities for the Tigers last season after kicker David Kemp sustained an injury. Doyle was second in the conference in punting last season, averaging 46 yards on 41 punts and only allowing 89 return yards all year. The Knoxville native fared worse on the field goal side, going 7-12 on the season with a long of 51. Kemp should be back in action this year so Doyle can focus on just the punting.
Also, Memphis loses punt returner Calvin Austin Jr. but at least kick return man Gabriel Rogers is back. The speedster racked up 549 kick return yards for the Tigers last year.
UCF: Fun fact: kicker Daniel Obarski Jr. did not attempt a field goal in the first three games of last year. Was it lack of faith from head coach Gus Malzahn? Unclear. But this year, Obarski is back and looking to improve on his 8-of-14 made in year three.
Punter Andrew Osteen, who averaged 41.1 yards on 71 punts last season and long snapper Alex Ward also return so the unit has some experience. We will have to see if that is enough.
Wide receiver Johnny Richardson, who finished in the bottom on the conference averaging just 20 kick return yards a game, is also back for the Knights.
Wait and See
Houston: Laine Wilkins will be back punting for the Cougars. He will be looking to improve on his 41.8 yards per punt that put him eighth in the conference last season. It will be much more difficult for head coach Dana Holgorsen to replace kicker Dalton Witherspoon, who’s experience lent some credibility to the unit. Witherspoon ranked fourth in the conference last season, making 16-of-24 with a long of 52 yards. Will it be senior Bubba Baxa, who has been UH’s kickoff specialist the last two season? Or will hungry sophomore Kyle Ramsey, who went 3-for-3 on extra points last year, win the job? I don’t even want to get into the Marcus Jones-sized hole in the Cougars return game – if Holgorsen doesn’t have a clue, why should I?
SMU: The Mustangs have to replace Blake Mazza at kicker. So what does newly minted head coach Rhett Lashlee do? He offers the No. 4 high school kicker in the country a scholarship. And Collin Rogers, who also received offers from Georgia, Florida State and Ole Miss, accepts.
This means Brendan Hall can stick to punting his little 6-foot-8 heart out. Except, in comes former Texas Longhorn punter Ryan Bujcevski through the old transfer portal. Oh what a tangled special teams web Lashlee weaves. Bujcevski averages 41.5 yards per punt while Hall averages 41.7 and a long of 67 yards.
At least the run game is simple – safety Bryan Massey returns, toting his team-leading 20 kick returns for a total of 686 yards (12th in NCAA, 11th all-time SMU), two touchdowns (2nd in NCAA) and his conference-best 36.1 yards per return with him. Be afraid when kicking or punting to SMU.
Tulane: New faces for the Green Wave on special teams. Tulane loses Ray Guy finalist Ryan Wright, who is now punting for the Minnesota Vikings. They will miss his conference-best 47.5 yards per punt, but junior Casey Glover will fill in nicely should he win the job over walk-on Bobby Noel. Fun fact: Glover executed four onside kicks last season. The other Glover, as in Merek, leaves a kicking legacy – he became the school’s all-time scorer despite hitting just 6-of-11 on the year. Tulane fans probably wish they could have that Tulsa kick back though.
The race to replace him is on between experienced Rutgers transfer Valentino Ambrosio, third-year scholarship guy Kriston Esnard, walk-on Washington State transfer Lucas Dunker and walk-on Graham Dable.
Temple: It can only get better for Temple. This sentiment is true for the entirety of the football program under new head coach Stan Drayton. And it rings true for special teams as well. The attitude and culture are already noticeably better in Philly, but there are some logistical kicking and punting questions.
Freshman walk-on kicker Thomas Murray departed the team in the first week of fall camp, leaving behind three additional specialists - sophomore kicker Roy Bell, 28-year-old redshirt senior Aussie punter Mackenzie Morgan and dual-threat kicker/punter Noah Botsford. Bell finished last season 9-of-16 in field goals with a long of 55. He was 6-of-7 inside 40 yards, which shows there is consistency to build on. Botsford redshirted last year, but was named All-Florida first-team as a punter in high school. The Owls hope to see more walk-ons as fall camp progresses to add some depth to the unit.