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August 8, 2011

Preseason unit rankings: Special teams

Fall practice gets under way this week, and that means the 2011 college football season has started.

Today, we unveil the seventh of our national unit rankings. We're revealing one unit per day and end Tuesday with overall coaching staffs.

The rankings take into account what the players have accomplished, how we think the players will do this season and sheer talent. But production does trump potential.

Here are the special teams rankings. Next up: coaching staffs.

SPECIAL TEAMS UNIT RANKINGS

10. CONNECTICUT
BUZZ: K Dave Teggart has made all 99 of his career extra points and a school-record 52 field goals (on 69 attempts). He clinched UConn's BCS berth last season with a 52-yard field goal in the final seconds against USF. He also kicked the winner in overtime against West Virginia. Cole Wagner averaged 41.3 yards per punt last season. Connecticut's return game will be in good shape with backup WR Nick Williams, who led the nation with 35.3 yards per kickoff return and added two touchdowns. The coverage units need to improve, though.

9. HOUSTON
BUZZ: Junior K Matt Hogan returns after going 14-of-17 last season; while he is accurate (26-of-29 in his career), his range doesn't extend much past 40 yards. P Richie Leone averaged 41.4 yards in his first season as the regular punter. He also served as the kickoff specialist and did a solid job in that role. Houston has extremely dangerous return men who double as extremely dangerous wide receivers. Tyron Carrier averaged 23.5 yards per kickoff return last season and returned one 91 yards for a score. Carrier has six kickoff-return TDs in his career; the NCAA record is seven by former Clemson TB C.J. Spiller. Patrick Edwards averaged 15.4 yards per punt return and took one back for a TD. The coverage units need work, though, which is surprising considering how athletic the Cougars are as a whole.

8. CLEMSON
BUZZ: Chandler Catanzaro returns as Clemson's kicker after going 14-of-22 on field-goal attempts last season, with a long of 48. While he could stand to improve his accuracy, Catanzaro has a strong leg and was 6-of-9 from 40-49 yards last season. Senior P Dawson Zimmerman averaged 42.7 yards per attempt last season. TB Andre Ellington looks to be in line to be the main returner on kicks and punts. The Tigers also were 31st in kickoff coverage and 41st in punt coverage last season.

7. ARKANSAS
BUZZ: This looks to be a solid group all around. P Dylan Breeding averaged 42.5 yards per attempt and K Zach Hocker was 16-of-19, including 7-of-9 from at least 40 yards. Joe Adams is an excellent punt returner, while Dennis Johnson - who missed all but two games last season with what was termed a bowel injury - is the SEC's active leader in career kickoff-return yards with 2,014. The punt coverage was good last season, but coaches need to find a way to shore up the kickoff coverage.

6. OHIO U.
BUZZ: K Matt Weller and P Paul Hershey may be the best kicker/punter duo in the MAC. Weller nailed 11-of-14 field-goal attempts in 2010 and has 50-yard range. Hershey averaged 41 yards per punt and had 14 punts downed inside the 20. WR LaVon Brazill is a deadly punt returner who has run back four for touchdowns in his career. TB Donte Harden is adequate as a kick returner. The Bobcats' coverage teams were strong last season.

5. OKLAHOMA
BUZZ: K Jimmy Stevens doesn't have the strongest leg, but he was 19-of-23 on field-goal attempts last season, including 3-of-4 from 40-49 yards. Tress Way is one of the 10 best punters in the nation. He averaged 44.0 yards per attempt last season and has a 44.8-yard average in his career. Ryan Broyles had a down season as a punt returner last season, averaging 7.9 per attempt. He has taken two back for TDs in his career. OU will have a new kick returner this season. The Sooners' punt coverage unit was excellent but the kickoff coverage was atrocious, with a nation's-high four TDs allowed.

4. MICHIGAN STATE
BUZZ: K Dan Conroy earned first-team All-Big Ten honors last season after making his first 14 field-goal attempts. It will be difficult to replace P Aaron Bates, who led the Big Ten and ranked No. 13 nationally, and redshirt freshman Mike Sadler will get first crack at the job. WR Keshawn Martin did a great job as a punt returner last season (14.2-yard average, one TD) but was surprisingly pedestrian as a kick returner. He has shown explosiveness in that role in the past. The coverage units were OK.

3. OREGON
BUZZ: The headliner is CB Cliff Harris, who was phenomenal as a punt returner last season. He averaged 18.8 yards on 29 returns and took back four for touchdowns. His four touchdowns covered a combined 256 yards; his TD returns alone were more than 84 teams totaled in punt-return yards. Josh Huff was solid as a kick returner, averaging 24.7 yards as a freshman. K Rob Beard wasn't that busy on field goals, but he did hit 63 of his 64 extra-point attempts and was 10-of-13 on field goals. While accurate, Beard does not have a strong leg. Jackson Rice had a good season as the punter, averaging 42.3 yards per attempt and dropping almost half of his attempts (18 of 40) inside the 20. Kickoff coverage was excellent, punt coverage adequate last season.

2. FLORIDA STATE
BUZZ: Dustin Hopkins and Shawn Powell give Florida State a quality kicker/punter tandem. Hopkins went 22-of-28 on field-goal attempts last season and made a 55-yarder to beat Clemson. He made a 60-yarder in the spring game. He also produced touchbacks on 47.7 percent of his kickoffs. Powell averaged 44.3 yards per punt last season and helped Florida State rank 15th nationally in net punting. The Seminoles also have an outstanding return man in CB Greg Reid, who led the nation in punt returns in 2009 and ranked 28th in that category last season. Kickoff returns need to improve. The Seminoles were adequate with their coverage units last season: 53rd in punt coverage and 55th in kickoff coverage.

1. GEORGIA
BUZZ: Meet the best kicker/punter duo in the nation in K Blair Walsh and P Drew Butler. Walsh, a senior, was 20-of-23 last season, including a 53-yarder, and is 55-of-68 for his career. He also has kicked at least two 50-plus-yarders each season and has 33 touchbacks on kickoffs in his career. Butler's dad, Kevin, was an All-American at Georgia and a longtime NFL kicker. Drew, a senior, might be the nation's best punter. He averaged 44.5 yards per punt last season and has a career average of 46.1 yards. Thirty-nine of his 109 career punts have traveled at least 50 yards. There's more: CB Brandon Boykin also has a shot at All-America honors as a kick returner. He averaged 24.3 yards per return last season, with one touchdown; he has four career touchdown returns and a career average of 25.2 yards. Coaches plan to use him on punt returns this season, too, though CB Branden Smith has shown he can be a dangerous punt returner. To top it all off, the coverage units were superb last season.

(Text by Mike Huguenin. Rankings by Olin Buchanan, Tom Dienhart, David Fox, Mike Huguenin and Steve Megargee.)



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