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Sun Belt Specialists

Breaking down special teams play in the Fun Belt.

GoDaddy Bowl - Toledo v Arkansas State
Blaise Taylor will look to make an impact in Arkansas State’s kick return game.
Photo by Michael Chang/Getty Images

As we approach the end of our preview series, we saved the best for last. At least the punters and long snappers out there will think so. Here we’ll break down the kicking game in the Sun Belt and tell you where each program stands. There was some legit talent in the league last year and we’ll see if anyone can become a star this season.

Top of the Food Chain

Arkansas State: Creating Havoc

The Red Wolves struggled to consistently put up points last season so they had to find a way to be creative to get some momentum for their offense. Blocked kicks were a huge part of this as the Red Wolves produced five led by reserve running back Johnston White. They must find a new kicker, but redshirt sophomore Sawyer Williams was the kickoff specialist last year and should be a solid replacement. Meanwhile, punter Damon Foncham returns after a solid freshman season where he average 39.3 yards per punt. Meanwhile, Darryl Rollins-Davis was second in kick return average last year in the Sun Belt after leading the conference in 2015. He’ll be a legit weapon in the return game. Punt returner Blaise Taylor returns and he’s boom or bust whenever the ball gets in his hands. Arkansas State has the best special teams unit in the league.

UL-Lafayette: Solid Kicker and Returner Depth

Stevie Artique returns to Lafayette and will be entering his third season as the starting kicker. Artique was very dependable for Mark Hudspeth’s squad last season as he went 19-for-24 on field goals and four of his five misses came from 40+ yards. Inside of 40 he was damn near automatic and gives this Cajun offense a solid weapon to have when they get into scoring range. Defensive back Levarious Varnado returns after serving as both a punt returner and kick returner last fall. The senior wasn’t very explosive, but remained consistent by averaging 9.4 yards on punt returns and 15.6 on kick returns. Raymond Calais provided the burst as he posted 21.9 per return. UL-Lafayette would like to become more explosive in the return game, but finding a punter will be the biggest question to answer.

Georgia Southern: Special Teams Master

Savannah State v Georgia Southern
Can Tyson Summers have the Georgia Southern kicking game producing at a high level again in 2017?
Photo by Todd Bennett/Getty Images

Tyson Summers came to Statesboro known for his defensive work at UCF as a coordinator, but before that he was an accomplished special teams coach. That was on display last season as one of the few things that Georgia Southern did exceptionally well was the production in their kicking game. The Eagles must replace the Sun Belt’s second best kicker, but punter Matt Flynn is a good one. The senior is the league’s best returning punter and his 37.7 net average has a chance to improve this year. The Eagles must find a new punt returner, but Malik Henry gives them a proven weapon in the kick return game. Summers will have the Eagles competent in special teams play.

Appalachian State: Impressive Rookie Kicker

Michael Rubino got off to an awful start last year in his freshman season before closing strong. The freshman missed two huge kicks in the opener at Tennessee (an extra point and a field goal) that would cost the Mountaineers the upset. However, he was razor sharp after that as Rubino wouldn’t miss an extra point the rest of the season and would finish the year 15-of-21 on field goals. App State should be set for a long time at the placekicker position. Meanwhile, there will be a healthy competition between Rylee Critcher and Australian punter Xavier Subotsch. Darrynton Evans, the sophomore athlete out of Florida, showed play-making ability last year with a 94-yard kick return TD. Much like the rest of their roster, the Mountaineers will be strong on special teams.

Room For Improvement

South Alabama: Solid Kicking and Punting Duo

In 2016, Gavin Patterson and Corliss Waitman both were serviceable starters. Now South Alabama will need the duo to step up the production in 2017. Patterson was automatic on extra points and anything under 40 yards. However, USA will need him to extend his range in 2017 to help out a rebuilding offense. Waitman got his feet wet in 2016 and should be much improved this fall after only punting 17 times once replacing starter Brandon McKee. In the return game, running back Xavier Johnson returns after recording a 21.8 average that was bolstered by a 95-yard score. With Johnson being the feature back, Joey Jones and staff may need find another option for the return game.

Troy: Replacing a Stud

Ryan Kay has no more eligibility remaining and that is a bummer for any Troy supporter. The versatile kicker handled the punting and kicking duties for the Trojans last season as he was very productive in both categories. Kay averaged over 40 yards on his punts as well as knocking in five field goals of 40+ yards. The Trojans are likely to take a step back in both of these positions. However, there is some good news for Troy as they get both of their return men back. Cedarius Rookard is more well known for his safety play, but the junior is also a solid punt return threat. Meanwhile, diminutive running back Jabir Daughtry-Frye returns as a kick returner after posting a solid 27.9 return average and one score last season. Kicking is a question, but the Trojans have some impressive return specialists.

ULM: Just Average

NCAA Football: UL Monroe at Auburn
Can Craig Ford extend his range in 2017?
John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

The Warhawks return most of their specialist production from last year, but improvement is really needed. Kicker Craig Ford returns for his junior season after knocking in nine field goals last fall. Ford was hit or miss from anything over 40 yards while not missing anything from short distance. Mizzou grad transfer Dayton Balvanz was solid in his only season in Monroe and now ULM will turn to another transfer in former Southeastern Louisiana punter Harrison Helm. Returners Marcus Green and Markis McCray were respectable but hardly ever threatened to make a big play. ULM won’t be bad, but they won’t necessarily be good on special teams.

New Mexico State: Youth Movement

The Aggies return both of their kickers from 2016 and each player has multiple years of eligibility remaining. Therefore, NMSU could have something building in the special teams department. Parker Davidson was a solid 15-for-19 on field goals last year even though he missed five extra point attempts. Davidson will be pushed by true frosh Dylan Brown in fall camp, who was an impressive prospect coming out of Arizona. Payton Theisler started as a freshman and the two blocks off his punts really hurt the Aggies last year. NMSU was anemic in the return game in 2016 and must get better.

It’s Still Ugly

Coastal Carolina: Perhaps the Best Punter in the Sun Belt

The Chants make their debut in the Sun Belt while bringing with them a solid option at punter. Evan Rabon, a junior from Florence, SC, averaged 39 yards per punt last season and should improve on that number this fall. This would put him among the best punters in the Sun Belt. Chris Jones is a really good punt returner and he’ll have the ability to flip the field in some close games for Joe Moglia’s club. Ky’Jon Tyler returns as the leading kick returner after posting 19 yards per return as a freshman. Coastal must find a kicker but they have some building blocks.

Idaho: Replacing An Elite Kicking Game

Famous Idaho Potato Bowl - Idaho v Colorado State
The loss of Austin Rehkow may have been the biggest departure in the Sun Belt.
Photo by Loren Orr/Getty Images

Austin Rehkow did it all for the Vandals last fall as he knocked in 26 field goals as well as averaging 41.6 yards per punt. He was easily the best punter in the Sun Belt in 2016 and was in the conversation as the best kicker. This is a huge blow for Paul Petrino’s club and the Vandals must find an answer. Denzal Brantley and Alfonso Onunwor will be the guys in the return department, but this group takes a huge step back with the loss of Rehkow.

Georgia State: Nowhere to Go But Up

Shawn Elliott takes over in Atlanta and one thing he must upgrade immediately is special teams play. Georgia State has, historically, been horrific in the third phase of football and must get better if they want to return to the postseason. After handling the punting duties as a redshirt frosh, it is expected that Brandon Wright will be the punter and kicker for the Panthers this fall. Wright definitely has the leg after averaging nearly 40 yards per punt. Punt returning was flat out ugly last year, but Tra Barnett and Glenn Smith provide the Panthers with some pop in the kick return game. Things should improve for the Panthers this fall.

Texas State: It’s Ugly

There’s a lot of work to do in San Marcos and the special teams department is no different. Marcus Ripley and James Sherman both return after they each received playing time at kicker and punter last fall. When given the opportunity, both have proven to be capable as field goal kickers while Ripley put up 38 yards per punt. The return game is a different question as sophomore Jordan Eastling is back as the only player with return experience. Don’t be surprised if head coach Everett Withers looks for answers in that touted 2017 recruiting class.