By: Michael Hanich | Sports Editor
Special teams are an area of the team that is often overlooked by fans and most media. The South Alabama Jaguars football team played their worst season in program history this past year. The special teams were the least of their problems but took some of the bulk as a result of a 2-10 season (1-7 in Sun Belt Conference play). There were areas that special teams could have impacted more significantly but the players were not put into the best situations. This season, the Jaguars are looking to improve drastically and compete for the Sun Belt Conference West divisional title. Like every season, the Jaguars must look to replace their contributors that are no longer on the team. There are plenty of position battles that the coaches will need to sort out with practices and workouts now in motion for the 2020 college football season.
Here is the current state of the Jaguars’ special teams position group going into the 2020 college football season.
One starter returning
There are several areas for the Jaguars to be concern about for the 2020 season. The punting game is an area where the Jaguars should have no concern with sophomore Jack Brooks returning to the team. The Australian native is looking to make his second year with South Alabama a much more productive season. Brooks finished the season with 67 punts for 2,828 yards, which averages 42.2 yards per punt. In his first season playing college football, Brooks helped the Jaguars finish ranked 65th in the nation (out of 130 division one teams) in average yards per punt. Brooks was one of the more consistent and productive players for the Jaguars last season. With a full season under his belt and an offseason to develop himself, Brooks has the potential to become a first or second-team All-Sun Belt punter for the 2020 season.
Two starters returning
While the punting game was the more consistent phase of special teams, the kicking game was an area that less efficient. The Jaguars finished the 2019 season ranked 127th in extra points percentage (87.5%) of 17-of-18 and 108th in field goal percentage (61.5%) of 8-of-13. Sophomore kicker Frankie Onate played and started in nine games for South Alabama this past season as made 17-of-18 from extra points and 7-of-12 from field goals. There were times were Onate struggled with range and accuracy. This was even though the offense did not give them enough great looks. Often, the kicks were rushed with the defense quickly bursting through for an attempted block. Freshman kicker Diego Guajardo started in three games and made his lone field goal of the season while making 4-for-6 from the extra points. Guajardo (now a sophomore) is expected to be the starting kicker for the Jaguars due to his stronger leg but expect a big position battle between him and the junior kicker Frankie Onate.
Punt Returner and Kickoff Returner
The Jaguars had a jack-of-all-trades player in running back Tra Minter. Not only was Minter a dynamic running back and a great option in the passing game, but he was also their lethal returner in the punt and kickoff return game. Minter returned 30 of the Jaguars’ total 36 kickoff returns for 636 yards as well as returned 12 punts for 41 yards. Now with Minter gone, the Jaguars will need a new explosive and dynamic playmaker in punt returns and kickoff returns.
Junior wide receiver Jalen Tolbert is projected to take both return specialists spots. Tolbert’s explosiveness and agility will be enough to potentially the offense in great positions or return them for a touchdown. The Jaguars could also use sophomore running back Jared Wilson, who ran two kickoff returns for 13 yards last season. More players that could be essential in the return game is sophomore Carlos Davis, junior wide receiver Jalen Wayne, junior wide receiver Cade Sutherland, or senior cornerback Devin Rockette.
The Jaguars have not had a punt return go for a touchdown since Minter ran one back in the 45-7 win over Alabama State in 2018. They have not had a kickoff return for a touchdown since Xavier Johnson ran one back in the 41-40 win over Nicholls State in 2016.