Spartan Red Zone: Special Teams Assessment

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This is the ninth and final article in a series of assessments on each position for Michigan State football. To read about the Spartan secondary, click here.

Andy Chmura: @andy_chmura

As far as special teams go, the Spartans might as well be already thinking about 2017. MSU’s special teams unit did come up with big moments in the Michigan and Ohio State victories. But other than these two plays, the special teams were abysmal in 2015.

Although he had one solid year in a Spartan Uniform, kicker Michael Geiger took a massive step backward in his sophomore and junior years. There is no denying that Geiger has an excellent celebration dance, but his skills as a kicker were far from acceptable in the past two seasons. After hitting 93.8 percent of field-goals in 2013, Geiger’s percentage hit a new low at 63.2 in 2015. He also missed two extra points.

It was painfully obvious since the very first kickoff of 2015 that the Spartans’ kicking coverage was sloppy. Although it improved slightly as the year progressed, MSU’s defense often found themselves in terrible field position due to poor coverage by the special teams. If MSU does not improve on this, they will be absolutely grilled at the hands of Jabrill Peppers and the Michigan Wolverines.

MSU’s kick and punt returning was never the best. Still, RJ Shelton will return for what should be an average season as a kickoff returner. Unfortunately, punt returner MacGarrett Kings will not return. Kings dropped multiple punts in 2015, one of which helped cause Ohio State’s lone touchdown against the Spartans. Nevertheless, he was the best man for the job, and the Spartans are going to have to find a way to replace him.

One redeeming factor for the Spartans’ special teams is the return of punter Jake Hartbarger. As a true freshman, Hartbarger ranked fourth in the Big Ten in punting with an average distance of 42.7 yards per kick. But what happens if Hartbarger goes down? Who replaces him? If 2015 gives us any indication, the answer is Tyler O’Connor. That’s right, Spartan nation, your second-best punter is your quarterback.

Let’s hope that Harbarger can stay healthy and that MSU finds ways to improve on last year’s special teams unit. Unfortunately, I am not very optimistic that this will happen.

Game one is in the books and so far, my prediction is spot on. Michael Geiger had one shot at a 43-yard field goal and missed it, making him0-1 on the year. Despite all of that, he was four-for-four on extra points.

MSU’s kickoffs were decent even thoughkicker Kevin Cronin kicked one of them out of bounds. The Spartans’ kickoff returns were nothing special, and averaged less yards per return than Furman.

As predicted, the only area in which MSU’s special teams were solid was punting. Jake Hartbarger averaged 44.7 yards per punt. His longest was 58 yards and three were placed inside the 20-yard line.

Grade: D

Brendan Wilner: @b_wilner16

Special teams in college football can make or break a season, and the Spartans learned that last year with their last second wins over Michigan and Ohio State.

Kicker Michael Geiger is back again and obviously is a huge key for special teams. The Spartans will play some tough defenses this season and it will be up to Geiger to come up with some clutch field goals when the offense fails to score.

Sophomore Jake Hartbarger will return as the punter in 2016. His accuracy and power are what make him a bright spot on a struggling special teams unit.

The punt and kick return teams were average at best last season, and this season shouldn’t be any different. The Spartans don’t always have the flashiest guys back returning for them, but if RJ Shelton can limit the turnovers, it will go a long way in helping the Spartan offense in 2016.

Overall, the special teams looked good during their first game against Furman. It was a positive to see some potential in this unit before the big game against Notre Dame.

Grade: C+

David Manion: @The_Manion1

Kicker Michael Geiger will be greatly relied on to consistently make field goals. He possesses the power game, as he can drill it from 50 or more yards, but he needs to improve on his accuracy from long range.

Redshirt freshman Collin Caflisch will do his part by replacing last year’s long snapper, Taybor Pepper. Senior wide receiver Matt Macksood will once again be the starting holder. He was streaky last season as he had some trouble adjusting to high and low snaps.

Sophomore punter Jake Hartbarger could breakout to be one of the best punters in the Big Ten. His accuracy is his strong suit, while his power game needs to be polished.

Overall, this unit had a solid showing in the season opener under the lights against Furman. The special teams coverage did an outstanding job of surrounding the return man and forcing poor field position.

Michael Geiger missed his lone field goal try from 41 yards out. He needs to be able to find his groove sooner rather than later and ride it into each game. Caflisch had a nice debut with his snaps being on point, this led to clean holds from Macksood. Hartbarger was impressive with all three of his punts landing inside the 20-yard line, two inside the ten.

This squad must be on their A game when facing Notre Dame in South Bend. The Irish have a dangerous return man in C.J. Sanders, who will present a great challenge of containment for the Spartan special teams Open field tackling will determine field position, so it’s critical that Michigan State forces the Irish to drive the length of the field.

Geiger needs to drill every field goal opportunity he gets, as the Notre Dame offense can strike at any moment.

MSU Special Teams coach Mark Snyder hopes that R.J. Shelton and Darrell Stewart can spark the return game.

Grade: B

Matt Mika: @themattmika

Time and time again the special team unit is looked upon to come up with a big play. Whether that be a crucial field goal or a big return on a kickoff. Last year, Michigan State struggled on special teams at the beginning of the season. Right out of the gate against Western Michigan, the Spartans almost surrendered a touchdown on the opening kickoff. Only to be followed by a Bronco touchdown on the very next kickoff. The next week against Oregon, the Spartans gave up a punt return for a TD.

It seemed the special teams would be a liability, but over the course of the campaign, the Spartans tightened up their coverage and kicker Michael Geiger came up with clutch field goals including the walk-off game winner against Ohio State.

However, that was last year. This season, Spartan fans should see an improved special teams unit right out of the gate. Field position is always crucial in every game, and MSU is going to rely on using the entire field to their advantage.

Making the field longer for the opposing offense is going to be needed against the teams who have more explosive playmakers. By winning the field position battle, Michigan State will put themselves in position to win.

In week one against Furman, the field goal unit missed a 43-yard try. Capitalizing on any opportunities to score points is going to be crucial in winning the Big Ten and earning a spot in the college football playoff for the second year in a row.

The kickoff and punt coverage was solid throughout the game against Furman. Tackling in open space and minimizing big plays will be something to watch out for in the Notre Dame game as well as down the road in conference play.

Grade: B-