Dan Conroy has been amazing in 2010 for the Spartans.  Photo courtesy of Mark Boomgaard.

Dan Conroy has been amazing in 2010 for the Spartans. Photo courtesy of Mark Boomgaard.

 

As the Spartans Prepare for the Alabama Crimson Tide, Special Teams Takes the Forefront

 

Since Mark Dantonio came to MSU he has preached special teams, not lip service, he has lived it.  Unlike past staffs, it is not handed over to a graduate assistant, or given time in practice when it could be fit in.

 

It isn’t relegated to players that will never see the field; it is a badge of honor.  So much so that Greg Jones told me once, “I am as proud of being on our punt team as any honor I can get.”

 

When the Spartans tee it up against the Tide, their special teams will be critical for them to leave the land of Mickey Mouse with a big twelfth win for the season.

 

Aaron Bates is the best punter in the Big Ten and his directional talent and ability to place the ball are amazing.  Dantonio says often, “The punt is the biggest play in football,” and his punter proves it.

 

Saban places great value on special teams and they will mix up their attack.  The Tide will send guys from different spots on the field to attack a punter as well as drop back to set up critical returns.  Bates will be critical in not only placing the ball, but once it is away getting his team time to get down for a tackle or a fair catch.

 

That said, the Tide are very crafty and make setting up punt coverage difficult.  They purposefully have their returner take different lanes and mix up his tendencies so as not to give teams an advantage in preparation.  Saban is infamous for his scouting of his own team and that is what makes his punt return team good.

 

No one that covers MSU has spent as much time talking about Alex Shackleton, the long snapper, as Spartan Nation.   Shackleton will be the single most missed special teams key component on the Spartans’ squad in 2011.  He is Mr. Accurate delivering the ball to Bates.  No disrespect to Bates, but his backup Mike Sadler is a star in the making while as of now no one has stepped up to become the heir apparent for Shackleton.

 

Because of Bates’ ability to get hang time for his teammates, I give the edge to the Spartans in their punting team.

 

On punt receive, the Spartans have been good when Keshawn Martin is in the game.  Others have done a good job, but Martin is a star.  I would have liked to see more blocks out of this squad, but it doesn’t change the fact that when Martin is in the game they are a different team.  He will be in.  That is a gigantic help for the Spartans.  The only thing is that against a Bama team that is used to speed they are aware of dealing with it and game planning for it.

 

The Spartans have scored one TD on punt return and have not given any up on kickoff or punt.  The Spartans are averaging 19 yards per punt return, but again I worry about their opponent’s return average, which is 25.  Alabama is the best punt return team they will face all year.

 

On punt coverage for MSU I give the edge to Alabama.

 

Kickoff team for MSU has also done well.  The Spartans have struggled to get the ball in the endzone.  To stop Alabama that is a must.  They have loads of speed.  The Spartan Nation is thrilled with the most speed MSU has had in years, and Bama has triple the MSU speed.

 

Richardson will take the bulk of the returns and he is a highlight tape.  The Spartans will get help covering him because they practice against KMART, but he is a big wrecking ball with KMART’S speed.

 

With Alabama’s massive speed on kickoffs and the Spartans struggling to get the ball in the endzone, the key to the Spartans’ kickoff attack is Kevin Muma, a great kid. If he struggles to get the ball in the endzone, the Tide will have a CLEAR advantage on this side of the ball.

 

In fairness to Muma, we know he can do it.  He has all the talent. At times it appears to be a confidence struggle and at times it has been weather.  With it being hot in Orlando on game day (the forecast now), the wind could be the X factor.  If Muma puts it in the endzone, the advantage is for MSU.  Because it hasn’t been reliable, when MSU kicks off the edge goes to Alabama.

 

When MSU receives the kickoff the Tide struggles to get touchbacks also.  I like what MSU has done this year in this department and I give them the edge here.  Again MSU puts the best players on the field and when it comes to the MSU kick return, the edge goes to MSU.

 

When it comes to the PAT side of the kicker it is a wash. Both teams are automatic and it is a draw.  On field goals it is a different story.  The Tide are 19-25 with plenty of misses inside what should be a kick at this level of football.  We all know that MSU K Dan Conroy has been great, not good, and has only missed one.  Take your due Mr. Conroy.  Against the defending national champs and an SEC power, a former walk on gives MSU the edge on field goals.