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March 20, 2012

Spring Preview: Special Teams

When punter Steven Clark and kicker Cody Parkey both signed with Auburn in 2010, Jay Boulware told a group of Tiger fans the future was bright with the two new additions.

"I told them these two guys would be like nobody Auburn has seen here in a while," said Boulware, the Tigers' special teams coordinator and tight ends coach. "Everybody looked at me like I was crazy."

Two years later, Boulware isn't getting the same looks.

"People are actually seeing it," Boulware said. "I told them that those kids are going to be really good, and they have been. They are both phenomenal."

As a sophomore in 2011, Clark was named first-team All-SEC, a finalist for the Ray Guy Award (given to the nation's best punter) and a Pro Football Weekly All-American. He averaged 40.5 yards on 69 punts and had 32 punts downed inside the opponents 20-yard line, a mark that ranked him No. 1 in the SEC and No. 2 in the nation.

Of Clark's 69 regular-season punts, nearly half (34) resulted in fair catches, and only 10 of the 69 were returned. And those 10 returns managed to total just 62 yards (6.2 avg.). Of the 10 returns, five resulted in zero or negative yardage.

Still, Clark has work to do.

"Steven developed nicely from his first year to his second year, but he's not where he needs to be, yet," said Boulware. "He still has a lot of developing to do to become a more well-rounded punter. He's been really good at downing punts inside the 20- and 10-yard lines. He's really good at directional punting to his right, but we want him to be a guy that can do it in any direction."

Parkey, in his sophomore season, led the nation in touchbacks. He kicked off 66 times and more than half (38) resulted in touchbacks. In 2012, however, Parkey's touchback numbers will not be as impressive, and that will be by design.

The NCAA imposed a rule for the '12 season that will require teams to kickoff from the 35-yard line instead of the 30. That would seem to play into Parkey's advantage, but there's a catch. Touchbacks will now result in teams getting the ball at the 25-yard as opposed to the 20.

That doesn't sit well with Boulware.

In 2011, Auburn's opponents' average starting field position after kickoffs was the 23-yard line.

"We don't want to concede the 20-yard line, and we certainly don't want to concede the 25," said Boulware. "The new rule punishes people for having strong legs. It encourages people to not kick it into the end zone.

"We could easily tell him to kick it out of the end zone, but there are some things we might want to do directionally that we could take advantage of. I'm not quite sure how we will go about attacking it, but we aren't going to concede the 25-yard line."

As for Parkey's field goal kicking, there is room for improvement, said Boulware. In 2011, Parkey was 13-of-18 with a long of 45 yards.

"He has to get better on the 40-plus yard kicks," said Boulware. "And he is working hard on that. He has the leg, but he has to improve his accuracy from that distance."

Parkey's holder will be Ryan White, who did the job last season, but White will be receiving the snap from someone different than former longsnapper Josh Harris.

"Josh did a great job for us. He was the only longsnapper invited to the NFL Combine so it will be tough to replace him," said Boulware. "It's going to be a new guy, but we don't know who it is going to be, yet."

Auburn's top kickoff returners in 2011 will all return for 2012.

"We have some new options at kickoff return, but Tre Mason and Onterio McCalebb are both back, and so is Quan Bray," said Boulware. "They all showed they are more than capable of doing a good job. They also have experience. Corey Grant is another option that we could look at back there.

"At punter returner, Quan and Trovon Reed are both back, and we have other options there if we need them."

Boulware has several options at the punt and kick returner positions, but doesn't need any others at punter and kicker. In his opinion, he already has two of the nation's best.

"Steven and Cody were phenomenal for us last year, and I expect them to improve and be even better this year," Boulware said. "They both have the ability to be very good before they leave Auburn."

And nobody looks at him like he's crazy anymore when he says it.


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