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Uncertainty looms


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Auburn's fantastic kicking trio of seniors John Vaughn, Kody Bliss and Matt Clark were among the best in the land last season, and replacing them should pose as one of the biggest challenges in 2007 for the Tigers.

Vaughn was a game-changing place-kicker in 2006, connecting on 20-of-24 field goal attempts, including a 4-for-5 effort in the team's season-defining win against Florida. Vaughn was named the 2006 SEC Special Teams Player of the Year, producing 94 points in the '06 season (312 points career), and he has quite a few NFL scouts interested. Needless to say, it will be difficult for Auburn replace Vaughn next season, and his talent will be missed on the special teams unit.

Bliss, the punter, also had a stellar career the last four years with the Tigers. He played in 51 career games at Auburn, and, in his senior year, he finished third in the nation for punting average with 45.74 yards per boot. He was No. 1 at his position in the SEC last year and was a candidate for the Ray Guy Award, a prestige presented annually to the nation's top college punter. Bliss' experience and consistency throughout his Tiger career has also generated the interest of NFL scouts.

Finally, Clark was touted by head coach Tommy Tuberville as "the No. 1 kickoff specialist in the country," and with his impressive kickoff statistics, it's hard to argue with that claim. Of Clark's 62 kickoffs, 49 were downed for touchbacks, giving Auburn the lowest percentage of returned kickoffs in the country. Somewhat of a Cinderella story, Clark was a walk-on to the 2004 SEC championship team, then cut in the 2005 season. After dismal kickoff results in '05, Auburn placed Clark back on the roster for last season. It may have been one of the better moves special teams coach Eddie Gran made in '06, as Clark went on to even receive SEC special teams player of the week after his strong performance against Buffalo.

Sophomore Zach Kutch and freshman Ryan Shoemaker will in all likelihood split the kicking duties for Auburn in 2007. Kutch is the only one of the two who has college playing experience, appearing in five games in 2005 with a total of 14 kickoffs (two were downed for touchbacks). Although Shoemaker didn't see any playing time last year, like Kutch, he was a highly regarded kicker coming out of high school. In 2005, he was named to the Alabama Sports Writers 6A All-State First Team and was noted for his terrific leg strength and ability to consistently put kickoffs in the end zone. Expect these two young kickers to duke it out in spring practice for place-kicking and punting duties, as both seem equally qualified for the kickoff team.

Sophomores Tristan Davis and Brad Lester split kickoff returns last year, and their combined efforts produced positive dividends for Auburn throughout the season. The Tigers were fourth nationally in kickoff returns and first in the SEC. Davis was the SEC's top kickoff returner in 2006 and tied for 15th in the nation, gaining a total of 756 yards from kickoffs. Both of these promising athletes are returning for the 2007 season and hope to keep the kickoff team as one of the best in the nation.

The punt return game is the aspect of special teams that could use the most improvement after performing below expectations last season. Auburn placed 11th in the SEC and an embarrassing 106th in the nation for punt returns in '06. The good news is that punt returner Robert Dunn is only in his sophomore year, and after gaining valuable experience last season, will be returning next season. If the punt coverage can improve and Dunn continues to learn from his playing time, the punt return team should begin to perform to expectations in the future.

Next year appears to be one of improvement and replacement for Auburn's special teams. The talented but untested kickers need to gain important game experience and learn to perform under pressure, while the punt team must improve coverage. The kickoff return team should come back as the special teams' strength, and if the unit manages to convert a couple kickoffs into six points in '07, it would solidify its position among the nation's elite.

Who woulda thunk it?

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