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LSU working to eliminate uncharacteristic collapses during kickoff coverage

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Even if he has finally grabbed a starting role as a senior, linebacker Deion Jones is still a guy who cut his teeth covering kicks at LSU.

He takes pride in the job. That's why it pains Jones -- still a member of the kickoff and punt teams -- to see the Tigers struggle to take down opposing kickoff returners week after week.

"Me being a guy who played special teams the first three years, that's a punch to the gut," Jones said of the 96-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by South Carolina's Rashad Fenton last week. "That's like the worst feeling. I can't have that again, so we're going to have to get that together."

Fenton's touchdown snapped LSU's 29-game streak without allowing a kickoff return for a score -- the last was TCU's B.J. Catalon in the 2013 opener -- but LSU's return team had been building to this point.

The Tigers have surrendered a kickoff return of at least 37 yards in each of the last four games, and they sit near the bottom of the SEC and national rankings in most kickoff coverage statistics:

  • According to ESPN Stats & Information, opponents' average starting field position after an LSU kickoff is 69.5 yards from the goal line -- an average that ranks 122nd nationally and last among Power 5 teams.

  • LSU is last in the SEC in net average on kickoffs (36.1 yards per kick).

  • Opponents have returned 25 percent of LSU kickoffs for at least 30 yards, a percentage that is tied for 111th nationally.

Tigers kickoff men Trent Domingue and Cameron Gamble have combined to average 59 yards per kickoff, which ranks 98th in the FBS.

Jones and fellow senior Lamar Louis said small technical problems create many of the issues, like when coverage team members get out of their lanes and create space for return men to exploit.

"We work on that every day," said Jones, whose No. 6 Tigers (5-0, 3-0 SEC) host No. 8 Florida (6-0, 4-0) on Saturday. "It's just a matter of people not really keeping their lane integrity, I guess, with the fits."

However, Louis said, "They're easy fixes and we're going to fix that."

The problem is that they haven't been fixed yet. Syracuse, Auburn and Eastern Michigan all broke long returns, and then Fenton took one the distance. It got to the point that LSU coach Les Miles had the Tigers' kickers pooch multiple kickoffs down the middle of the field after Fenton's touchdown rather than risk another long return.

"We should never have allowed a kick return to go all the way against us," Miles said after the South Carolina game. "We're too good at special teams."

In general, Miles is correct. Excellent special-teams play has been a trademark of his tenure at LSU, which is what makes the recent problems even more startling. The same statistics where LSU ranks near the bottom this year are categories where the Tigers were near the top of the national rankings in Miles' first decade as head coach.

Between 2005, when Miles took over as LSU's head coach, and 2014, LSU ranked:

  • Eighth nationally in average opponent distance from the goal after a kickoff (74.2 yards).

  • Fifth in kickoff returns stopped inside the opponent's 25-yard line (310) and tied for fourth by stopping 38 percent of returns inside the 25.

  • Fourth in percentage of returns of 30-plus yards allowed (9.5 percent).

Miles said the coaching staff will consider personnel changes on the coverage team, although Jones expressed confidence that even the younger players in the group are capable of fixing the problems.

"We just have to get them primed and ready to play every week so stuff like that won't happen," he said.

Regardless of whether the scheme needs fine-tuning or the Tigers need to try out some new players on the kickoff team, they realize that their out-of-character struggles in the return game must end.

Miles guaranteed that it would be an area of emphasis this week ahead of the Tigers' monstrous top-10 matchup against Florida, when a special-teams bust could easily make the difference between winning and losing.

"We're really going to bring it to the team because the team's got to get it fixed," Miles said. "If they want to be something special, if they want to play in more significant games -- and very much like this Saturday's game -- then they're going to have to correct it."