The Daily Nole

Column: FSU Special Teams Finds Itself Repeating History

Damon Herota/FSU athletics

Everyone has heard the old phrase “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. Sometimes “past” is replaced with “history”, but the message is the same. If you don’t remember your mistakes, they’ll come right back around.

Historians take umbrage with the quote. While its message seems correct, it turns out that real life is much more complicated than that. Humans have this amazing tendency to both remember our failings and yet still try it again, thinking “this time will be different”. Remembering the past is only one component of living. You actually have to correct your issues if you ever want it to mean anything.

In a roundabout way, this is what has happened with the Florida State special teams unit. Despite the numerous mistakes and deficiencies of the previous staff, the Seminoles have either not learned from their mistakes or made entirely new ones for 2018.

All of it was on display against Louisville. Numerous times FSU gave the Cardinals advantageous field position, whether it be a punt hitting Anthony Grant in the helmet, Amir Rasul making a poor decision to return a kickoff, Logan Tyler barely getting a punt 35 yards down the field, etc.

Even small things that don’t typically get noticed were lacking. Everyone remembers D.J. Matthews’ long punt return that set up the Tamorrion Terry touchdown. But did you watch the blocking on that return? Matthews is more or less the only reason that turned into something.

This all comes after an opening game where FSU surrendered a punt block for a touchdown because of busted shield punt. It was one play, but it critically altered the viability of FSU making a comeback.

Welcome to the 2018 special teams unit. Same as the 2017 special teams unit.

The numbers…might lie. There’s a weird contrast between how certain ratings systems view Florida State’s special teams. The S&P ratings by Bill Connelly have had the Seminoles in the top-10 for three of the past four years.

Much of it is buoyed by Ricky Aguayo’s field goal kicking and general kickoff efficiency, where Florida State tended to rank highly during the Jimbo Fisher years. Punting efficiency and punt return efficiency is way down, by contrast.

Compare that to FEI ratings. These were much more bearish on Florida State’s special teams, even placing it at 123rd overall in 2016. Here’s one of our tweets from after the Alabama game last season.

Thankfully for FSU, the special teams managed to rebound to 67th overall by the end of the year. One wonders if the Seminoles would’ve made a bowl game had it gone any lower.

It’s the same dichotomy as S&P ratings. Florida State’s field goal and kickoff efficiency is near the top, but the punting and punt return efficiency is almost dead last. So you get this result where it looks like FSU is middle-of-the-pack, when in reality, it is a clear weak spot which is actively harming the team.

The FEI ratings for 2018 will not be published until after Week 7, so we won’t know how bad it is for another couple of weeks. But we can tell you right now that it’s not going to be good. At all.

How did this happen?

During the 2018 offseason, head coach Willie Taggart decided to use his extra coaching spot to hire Alonzo Hampton as a full time special teams coordinator. The move was met with (rightful) skepticism. Special teams coordinators may not be worth using up a staff spot, because you only spend so much time teaching it. The obvious assumption was that Hampton would focus on recruiting, with special teams coaching being a secondary role.

Well, it turns out it might not have a role at all.

Hampton has followed Taggart at his four different head coaching stops, with roles ranging from defensive analyst to defensive backs coach. He’s not regarded as an exceptional teacher of the game. He doesn’t need to be, especially if his roles are somewhat minor in the grand scheme of things. He’s one of “Taggart’s guys” who is familiar and knows how Taggart wants to run things.

That’s a bit of a warning sign for Florida State observers who witnessed the end of the Jimbo Fisher era. Not every coach needs to be a superstar, but if an underperforming position is manned by a friend that the head coach doesn’t want to fire, it becomes a question of what will be required before a change is made.

Taggart doesn’t seem especially worried. Fans might not want to hear this, but according to FEI, Taggart has had just one special teams unit rank above 70th in his career. It was Western Kentucky in 2011. Since then, he’s been more or less content with how his special teams perform.

There’s no answer at the end of this column. I probably should have told you that beforehand, but you may have already picked up on it while reading. Logan Tyler hasn’t improved, punt returns are still highly questionable, Hampton seems to be just using up a staff spot, and there’s no certainty Taggart will make a warranted change after the first year.

Some of this can be negated by simply having a better team. Not surprisingly, if your offense doesn’t stall out as much, you don’t need to put an underperforming punter back out on the field. You also won’t need to rely on a punt returner to help you out with field position. Fix those two things and special teams can rapidly improve.

But for now? You’ll probably see more mistakes and another season of subpar performance from the most overlooked — but not unimportant — phase of the game.

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