We continue our look at the 2019 Louisville football team with a preview of this year’s entire special teams unit. This preview will cover both kicking units, as well as both kickoff and punt return units on the team. If you would like to catch up on other previews we’ve done so far, feel free to check out our breakdowns for the offensive line, defensive line, defensive backs, and linebackers.
Despite many flaws on last season’s squad, placekicking was not one of them. Blanton Creque hit 10/12 field goals last season, good for 83% and tied for 19th in the FBS. The bad news, though, is that the ten field goals is tied for 100th in the FBS, but that’s obviously not an indictment of the special teams unit.
Turning our attention to punting, Louisville averaged almost 39.97 yards per punt, good for 88th in the FBS. Their 70 punts for the season was tied with SMU for 30th in FBS, and averaged 233.2 punting yards per game (23rd).
On special teams defense, Louisville was slightly better than the actual defense, but still not on par with their contemporaries in the ACC. The Cardinals allowed 259 punt return yards (119th in the FBS) on 26 attempts, with 9.96 yards per attempt (90th in the FBS) and allowed one touchdown. Among all ACC schools, only Boston College (293 yards) and Florida State (364) allowed more yards, and only Virginia Tech (10.00), Miami (FL) (10.05), and Florida State (11.03) allowed more on average.
In kickoff coverage, Louisville fared a little better, allowing 20.76 yards per attempt (tied for 69th in the FBS) with one touchdown. Louisville kicked it off 51 times and averaged 60.53 yards per attempt (tied for 83rd in the FBS), forcing 11 touchbacks (the 21.57% touchback rate was 107th in the FBS).
The Cardinals had two blocked kicks in 2018. The first was a blocked 32-yard field goal against Western Kentucky, and then a blocked punt against Wake Forest.
Louisville was among the best at maximizing their few punt returns last season, averaging 15.15 yards per return (eighth in the FBS) and scored one touchdown, coming from Rodjay Burns. The Cardinals were also solid in their kickoff returns, averaging 22.66 yards per return (tied for 33rd in the FBS) with one touchdown, scored by Hassan Hall. Louisville was one of 18 schools last season to score both a kickoff return and punt return touchdown, and one of two in the ACC to do so (Pittsburgh was the lone other school).
Projected Starters: Blanton Creque (kicker); Mason King (punter); Mitch Hall (long snapper); Hassan Hall and Russ Yeast (kick returners); Rodjay Burns (punt returner)
It’s always a huge asset to have both your starting kicker and punter be fifth-year seniors on your roster, and that’s what Louisville has in Blanton Creque and Mason King. Both are local talents from the Bluegrass State, with Creque coming from Collins High School in Shelbyville, and King hailing from St. Xavier in Louisville. Creque currently ranks among the all-time great kickers in U of L history, as he is fourth all-time with 253 points, and sixth with 43 career field goals. Creque has yet to hit a field goal greater than 48 yards in his career, but another season will give him a chance to hit his first 50-yard field goal in his college career.
Mason King also returns as a fifth-year senior, and he currently holds the school career record in punting average (42.5). He’s also ranked in the top ten for career punts (167, ninth), and punting yards (7,098, eighth). If Louisville’s offense continues to struggle, especially in the first half of the season, King’s performance will be key to putting opponents in deep field position to flip the field.
Snapping the ball to Creque and King will be Mitch Hall, who has appeared in all 25 games and has yet to record a bad snap in his college career. That kind of stability is important when (a) your kicker has to hit field goals on cue, and (b) your punter has to get a good snap in to be able to flip the field accordingly.
Louisville will likely not have any seniors returning kicks for them, but they do have some experience and athleticism on both kickoffs and punts. The top two choices for kickoffs will likely be running back Hassan Hall, and defensive back Russ Yeast. Hall was the primary kick returner last year, and he had a few big returns against Alabama and Clemson, including a 93-yard touchdown against the Tigers in Death Valley. Long story short, Hall is fast, and is a threat to take any touch he gets to the endzone. I’m normally against starters getting primary reps as a returner because the idea of losing a key contributor on both special teams and offense is scary.
But sometimes, when a player’s athleticism is so exceptional and he is so fast (ex: Saquon Barkley at Penn State), you have to give him as many chances as possible to go for a big play. That’s what I see in Hassan Hall, a speedy back that will become both the workhorse in Louisville’s run-heavy offense, and a guy that can change the dynamic of the game with a big kickoff return.
The same could be applied for Russ Yeast, who will likely start at safety and also be a contributor on kickoff returns. Yeast has played most of his career as a cornerback and occasional returner, but hasn’t been able to get it clicking in his first two years. He was recruited by the former Louisville staff with the possibility of him being the next big special teams ace, once Jaire Alexander left. There’s still room for him to be that guy eventually, but for now, he will likely cede most of the returns to Hall and punt returner Rodjay Burns.
Burns returns once again as Louisville’s primary option on punt returns, and he had a solid 2018 season in that role. He averaged 15.15 yards per return last season, and had multiple returns that helped set Louisville’s offense up in great field position, even returning one for a touchdown against Indiana State amidst rainy conditions. If the 2019 team needs to get good field position for their next drive, Burns will be leaned on to provide them with that.
Louisville still has Blanton Creque and Mason King for one more season, and fans know what to expect from both at this point. King will continue being reliable at flipping the field for the Cardinals, and Creque is an accurate, reliable kicker if Louisville is able to get within 40-45 yards. If Creque is able to extend his range out to 50+ yards in his senior season, that would be a huge asset for the Cardinals.
The kickoff coverage team needs to find ways to get more touchbacks and improve coverage. I’m not sure if that is going to happen with Creque coming back as the kickoff specialist, but I’m always willing to give it a chance at this point.
Meanwhile, on the return teams, Louisville has a lot of potential in kickoffs and punts. Not many teams have the explosiveness that the Cardinals have in both areas, and that was evident last season when U of L was one of 18 teams last year with a kickoff and punt return touchdown. The odds of that happening again in 2019 won’t be very high, but it is within the realm of possibility as long as Hassan Hall and Rodjay Burns are fielding kicks.