College Football's Top Special Teams Coaches

Paul Johnson and Georgia Tech have struggled on special teams. But how much does it matter?


As the game of college football has evolved over the past 15 years, it has clearly become an “adapt or become extinct” type of game. Steve Spurrier’s “fun and gun” of the 1990’s at Florida has become “not so fun to watch” in his stint at South Carolina. Ralph Friedgen’s innovative and balanced offensive attack of the late 90’s and early 2000’s eventually became outdated and not so innovative and was passed up by the new “spread option” attacks of Gus Malzahn and Chip Kelly.

In the fast moving world of technology and information that we live in, it is more important than ever for a college football coach to try and stay one step ahead of the opponent, constantly striving to come up with different and innovative ways to win games.

This brings us to this week’s topic: Special Teams

Special Teams are indeed called “special” for a reason. Being able to flip field position on an opponent as well as the psychological momentum a team can gain from a big Special Teams play cannot be understated. Here are a few quotes from a couple coaches who put great emphasis on special teams (it’s not coincidence that these are three of the best coaches over the last few decades in college football):

A lot of teams take special teams for granted. Here, it's a privilege to play on the kickoff team or the punt return team. That's why you eat first on Friday night (before games). It's a big deal. He rewards guys who do good on special teams. It's not just overlooked like it is at some places. That's why they play so hard.
–-Urban Meyer

I was proud of our special teams. I think when you’re playing a good football better be good in your special teams.
–-Frank Beamer

I've seen too many games won or lost with special teams. On offense you run a play for zero yards, and you get up and do it again. On defense you can give up five yards, and you get up and do it again. But with special teams play, you get one shot. You don’t get second chances. You have one chance to do it, or one chance to defend it. It can change the complexity of the game so readily.
--Bill Snyder

As you know, here at CBTN we are big fans of Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson and the offensive system that he has implemented at Georgia Southern, Hawaii, Navy, and now Georgia Tech. However, as much as we admire the job Coach Johnson has done as a head coach and offensive mastermind, we have to bring to light Coach Johnson's attention or lack thereof to Special Teams. Below is a breakdown of how Georgia Tech has ranked nationally in the five major special teams categories in Paul Johnson’s tenure as the HC at Georgia Tech (national rankings are out of 120 teams):

Year Net Punting Punt Returns Punt Return Def Kickoff Returns Kickoff Return Defense
2008 93 88 73 95 40
2009 17 11 44 64 83
2010 114 97 98 97 11
2011 93 68 13 103 48
Averages 79 66 57 90 46

Not surprisingly, Georgia Tech’s best season on special teams was the 2009 season in which GT won 11 games and the ACC Championship and earned a birth to the Orange Bowl for the first time since 1966. Overall, Johnson's Special Teams have finished in the top half of FBS teams on average in only two of five categories, kickoff return defense and punt return defense. The kickoff return defense numbers can be a little misleading seeing as Georgia Tech’s kickers routinely kick the ball short, so even a short return gives the opponent quality field position.

Additionally, of the 20 rankings spots listed above, Georgia Tech's Special Team have been ranked in the bottom third of the nation in 11 of 20 spots (55%). Now let’s take a look at the CBTN top ten rated active coaches since 2007 (minimum of five years experience) and see how they have fared on Special Teams:

Coach Avg. Net Punting Rank Avg. Punt Return Rank Avg. Punt Return Def. Rank Avg. Kickoff Returns Rank Avg. Kickoff Return Def. Rank
Nick Saban 72.60 12.60 44.00 45.00 58.40
Bob Stoops 27.80 47.60 38.60 45.60 62.80
Chris Petersen 30.20 22.20 64.40 27.40 34.20
Les Miles 23.80 39.80 30.60 67.60 27.00
Frank Beamer 55.60 31.60 42.00 69.00 52.20
Gary Patterson 70.80 20.20 31.00 18.80 23.20
Mack Brown 51.00 41.20 67.80 50.60 67.80
Brian Kelly 54.00 71.00 69.80 31.20 41.60
Joe Paterno 54.80 63.60 54.40 53.80 72.00
Kyle Whittingham 58.20 51.00 79.00 45.00 43.20

So, of the top ten rated coaches over the last five years, here is the breakdown of the number of categories their Special Teams units have ranked on average in the top half of FBS teams:

Saban: 4 out of 5
Stoops: 4 out of 5
Petersen: 4 out of 5
Miles: 4 out of 5
Beamer: 4 out of 5
Patterson: 4 out of 5
Brown: 3 out of 5
Kelly: 3 out of 5
Paterno: 3 out of 5
Whittingham: 4 out of 5

Are we picking up on a theme here? Of the top ten CBTN rated head coaches from 2007-Present, eight are rated in the top half of four of the five major Special Teams categories listed above. Additionally, all ten are rated in the top half of at least three of the five major Special Teams categories.

So, are Special Teams important? According to the top coaches, yes they are. A quick review of Georgia Tech's 2010 season, in which they finished the year 6-7, sheds more light on the importance of Special Teams. In three games from the 2010 season, Georgia Tech saw the following Special Teams blunders, which played a major part in GT's loss:

  • In a 14-7 loss to Air Force in the Independence Bowl, Georgia Tech muffed two punts
  • In the game with arch rival UGA, Georgia Tech missed a PAT late in the 4th Quarter that would’ve tied the game
  • After tying the game late in the 4th Quarter against Virginia Tech on the road, Georgia Tech gives up a kickoff return for a TD

While there are many plays in a game that contribute to the final outcome, these Special Teams errors played a major part in the loss. After GT's recent 24-7 loss to Miami, in which three Special Teams blunders cost the Jackets dearly, Coach Johnson was asked about the Jackets' Special Teams' woes and about the possibility of hiring a coach whose primary responsibility was Special Teams. Here was his answer:

The whole thing is ridiculous. Guys calling for special teams coordinators don’t have any idea. You know how many teams in the ACC, SEC, Big 12 and Big Ten have special teams coordinators that don’t coach another position? Six. You know who it is in our league? Boston College – which is helping them a lot – and N.C. State. And the Big Ten, it’s Purdue. In the Big 12, it’s Kansas State. I think it’s Coach (Bill) Snyder’s son. Most staffs are set up the same as ours.
--Paul Johnson after a 24-7 loss to Miami

It is not our place to tell Coach Johnson who should be coaching what or how they should be coaching it. That being said, the numbers don't lie and the only ridiculous thing we see is the performance of Georgia Tech's Special Teams. As Mike Leach stated in his book, "you're either coaching it or allowing it to happen." If Paul Johnson wants to be considered among the elite coaches in college football, he had better figure out a way to get better on Special Teams.

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