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Governor's Grades Part III: MSU Special Teams

Wednesday I broke down MSU’s offense. Thursday was the defense’s turn and today we will break down the Spartan special teams. Close games are often decided by turnovers and special teams play. Here is what I have observed thus far.

KICKOFF TEAM: When 6’6” Todd “Big Bird” Boleski kicks the ball, it often makes its way to the end zone. This is particularly important now that the kickoff happens five yards deeper than a year ago. The 30-yard line kickoff has changed field position greatly in the young 2007-college football season. Teams have to do a much better job of preparing to cover and MSU has been up to the task as well as anyone. When Boleski kicks the ball well, it allows MSU to cover the field more effectively and creates a field position advantage. When Boleski comes up short, teams often start at the 30-35 yard line. Boleski needs to become more consistent kicking the ball into the end zone. I don’t know the actual NCAA statistic, but have watched enough football this season to know that most teams are getting a return on majority of kickoffs. Boleski can be one of MSU’s secret weapons if consistency is developed. A strong headwind will change field position throughout college football this year. With teams exchanging field direction every quarter, it is imperative that kickers take advantage of the opportunity when a strong tailwind makes its way into the stadium concourse. MSU has not given up many kickoff yards this season. Dangerous return men are looming as the Big Ten season gets underway and coverage downfield is more important than ever. The good news is that MSU has a kicker that can send the ball sailing to the goal line. The bad news is that it hasn’t happened with enough regularity to know what can be expected when Boleski and company line up.

End of Season Prediction: B

FIELD GOAL UNIT: I am not going to come out this early in the season and proclaim Brett Swenson is in a sophomore slump having made 4 field goals with only 7 attempts. In fact, I believe Swenson is among the top three kickers in the conference. MSU did have a field goal blocked due to a missed assignment in the Pitt game. It could have been pointed to quickly as a game changing disaster had the Spartans lost the football game. The steep angle that came with MSU’s missed 20-yard field goal late at Notre Dame last week has got to get corrected. Field goals inside of 30 yards should be a “gimme” when Swenson has the proper blocking, snap, hold and timing. Swenson has the accuracy to become automatic inside of 35 yards and should be hanging around 80% between 40-45 yards. He has not been counted on to win a game this season, but his opportunity is coming in the next month. MSU will find itself in multiple Big Ten games needing three points when they start facing more consistent speedier defenses in conference play. Swenson has all of the tools to be an All Big Ten kicker and will have his opportunities to prove the preseason accolades true. MSU replaced their consistent long snapper this past season. Alex Shackleton has been solid only having one miscue this season. A new holder is also being broken in as true freshman Aaron Bates receives the snap for placement this season. Bates has done a solid job and can be counted on to make a bad snap look like a good hold. The good news is that Swenson hasn’t had to win a game for us this season. The bad news is that Swenson hasn’t proven he can win a game when the pressure is heaped upon his shoulders. Swenson has about as much football “moxie” as a 5’8” 160 pound kicker can have; he is confident and seems to let the misses roll off his back.

End of Season Prediction: A-

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KICK RETURN UNIT: Most of the credit will go to Devin Thomas with MSU’s kickoff return team being nothing short of outstanding. MSU’s kickoff return team is averaging almost 29 yards per return; the blocking has been outstanding. The kickoff coming from the 30-yard line has helped MSU unleash its team speed and Devin Thomas has been excellent. Before the season is over, Devin will have taken at least two of them to the house. Mark it down… Devin will be first team All Big Ten as a kick returner at season’s end. It starts up front and MSU’s kickoff team has been patient, penalty free (knock on wood) and lethal. Devin and his Spartan counterparts have been a huge asset and seem to take the wind right out of opposing teams after they score. Field position is among the most important parts of a football game. Good field position opens the playbook for offenses. Bad field position widdles down the offensive package very quickly. Devin is a playmaker and a threat to take it the distance every time he returns a kick. Teams must look at game film every week and wonder whether or not they will fall victim to a Devin Thomas touchdown return. One is on the way, who will be the lucky victim? Sure would be nice to quiet that Camp Randall crowd this weekend. No added pressure Devin; just do what you’ve been doing.

End of Season Prediction: A+

PUNT RETURN TEAM: Michigan State’s punt return team is about managing field position and avoiding the costly mistake. I don’t know about any of you, but I just about had a cardiac arrest last weekend when that odd looking, loaf of bread punt darn near created a turnover before the half last weekend at Notre Dame. Terry Love is a senior and should know when it is high time to steer clear of the ‘ol pigskin. No damage done, the referees got it right and civility was restored. I think that being a punt returner is probably among the toughest jobs on the football field. That ball sails through the air, high into the clouds or the nighttime stadium lights and often times comes down unpredictably and unforgivingly. The cover team runs downfield with their target insight looking to ‘blow up’ the ball carrier and force a fumble. A punt returner has to be fearless, cerebral, athletic and semicrazy. MSU has been rotating both Mark Dell and Terry Love as punt return men. It is a lot to ask of the true freshman Dell. MSU hasn’t turned over the ball on a punt return this season and has been mediocre at best generating yards after the punt reception (7.0 per return). The good news is that MSU has a senior that is serviceable and has the skills to gain positive yardage. The bad news is that MSU hasn’t gotten many yards of production when the ball is fielded. Mistake free football is what Dantonio preaches.

End of Season Prediction: B-

PUNT TEAM: Ding, ding… MSU has got a winner!! With the departure of Brandon Fields last season, MSU’s new staff made recruiting a punter a top priority. Dantonio knew right where to go. A premier athlete from New Concord, Ohio was waiting for his opportunity to enter the Big Ten stage and Mark Dantonio payed a visit to Aaron Bates. A week or two later, Aaron pledged his services to Michigan State and the freshman punter has shown to be ‘big-game’ ready. Through four games Bates has punted the ball 20 times averaging 39.5 yards per punt. Although his 39.5 average appears modest on paper, Bates leg has proven accurate and his placement inside or near the 20-yard line has been good. Working with Craig Jarrett has got be a huge help for the freshman punter; he is learning from one of MSU’s best. Bates has yet to have a punt blocked and he seems to put a lot of air under the ball, which allows the MSU coverage to do its job. Bates is a very good athlete, he can dunk a basketball and was recruited to play college baseball. This is a big intangible to have in the arsenal if a breakdown is to take place. Bates has QB experience and can be a threat to run or throw the ball if something goes wrong. I have to wonder if Dantonio has a fake punt buried somewhere in his back pocket. Sure would be tempting to have Bates rollout and throw the ball to a tight end after a crucial drive stalls. We’ll just have to wait and see. The good news is that Bates hasn’t had a true “shank” all year long. The bad news is that the pressure and crowd noise is going to take a huge leap in the coming weeks. How will our freshman punter handle the pressure?

End of Season Prediction: B+