Key roles for LSU special teams in good hands
Manning a special teams role demands a certain type of football player. Not everyone is qualified.
On of the best special teams coordinators football has ever seen, Chalmette native Bobby April quickly identifies the key components of a good special team performer.
“They must be a team guy first. They must sell out for special teams. To exert energy, you have to have a lot of character, lots of toughness,” explained April, who works for LSU as an analyst. “Special team players are exuberant, enthusiastic . They sacrifice for the team knowing that they won’t be as rewarded as much as they deserve.”
Looking to repeat as national champions, LSU will heavily count on key special teamers in 2020.
Sophomore kicker Cade York scored 152 points last fall, converting 21 of 27 field goal tries. April is high on the McKinney, Texas native.
“He can be and will be exceptionally good. Considering the environment and pressure in that arena, to come right out of high school and perform like that tells me that he has greatness in him. This guy is naturally gifted and wants to learn. Greg McMahon found him.”
April is an extra set of eyes for McMahon, LSU’s special teams coach. Neither of them needs to tell the other that the punting job is in good hands.
Zach Von Rosenberg returns for his senior season after averaging 42.5 yards per boot in ’19. Eleven of his offerings traveled over 50 yards. Set to turn 30 in September, Von Rosenberg brings far more than the usual levels of experience and maturity to the job.
“He can be special,” April assessed. “He’s got the leg and talent. You must be consistent. Anyone can do it once in awhile; the difference is consistency to be great. He can be,” observed April. “It’s the mental thing that sets him apart.”
Von Rosenberg also serves as the holder for York’s kicks.
For the past eight seasons, there has been a Ferguson – Reid and the Blake – deep snapping for the Tigers. Quentin Skinner hails from the same high school in Buford, Ga. as the brothers who locked down a eye role at LSU since 2012. Skinner will have big shoes to fill as a redshirt freshman.
“Blake was so unique. His knowledge and ability to run downfield. He is a special guy. He’s tough with tremendous enthusiasm. He’s got it all. He’ll be in the NFL. If I were back in the league, I’d love to draft him. When he wasn’t on the field, he was standing on the bench waving a towel.”
Skinner has to step up with the expectations sky high.
“Maybe it’s in the water at Buford but this kid is really good, really accurate. He’s a good worker. I think that he’s going to be a plus. He’s naturally gifted. Every snap is important to him.”
Avery Atkins returns for his third season as LSU’s nearly-automatic kickoff specialist. In two seasons, 86 percent of his kickoffs have resulted in touchbacks.
As for the return game, it helps that the Tigers feature perhaps the best athlete in college football as the deep man on punts.
It was a tough act for true freshman Derek Stingley, Jr. to balance duties as a starting cornerback and punt returner. April is among many who acknowledge that it’s nothing the wunderkind cannot handle.
“The sky is the limit for Stingley. I think that he had so much on his plate. He’s like Lester Hayes or Willie Brown. Hall of Famers. He’s on the field to eliminate the wide receiver. He matched up with some great ones as a freshman. In 2020, he will be better. His confidence has grown. His maturity as a returner will increase ten-fold. His talent is insane. He could go in the first round of this year’s NFL draft.”
Sophomore Tre Palmer, a wide receiver who ran back a punt for a score last year in spot duty may work his way into more returns in 2019.
“Tre’ will be a phenomenal returner. He has a chance to be a superstar, a chance to reach the stars. These guys are Tommy Cassanova-types.” Cassanova is still the only three-time LSU All-American who changed games as a defensive back and return man.
In case you wonder how fortunate the Tigers are to have April’s four decades of coaching experience to draw upon, his duties go beyond his responsibilities at LSU. For the past three years, he has served as an NFL consultant.
“Basically, my main task is to work with the NFL referees as a connection to the coaching staffs. Like how can a certain rule be interpreted, what the group feels about a rule change and it’s feasibility. I go to New York, the Indianapolis Combine or owners’ meetings. I do coaching clinics. I also talk and meet new incoming coaches,” explained April.
Although his primary focus at LSU has been with special teams, the two-time NFL special team coach of the year knows the other phases of the game as well. He has been thoroughly amazed by the play of Joe Burrow. He understands the Heisman Trophy quarterback’s value to the team extended well beyond his impressive stats and why he is projected to be the top pick in this year’s NFL draft. It was Joe’s ability to overcome and move forward.
“I don’t know if there would be enough superlatives to describe him. His ability to find receivers, to get the ball to the correct spots, to move in the pocket. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
In a hard-fought 23-20 win over Auburn, Burrow carried the team on his back on a sloppy field. His 32 of 42 passing effort for 321 yards came with a touchdown pass and a scoring run. An Auburn buried his helmet into Burrow’s chest on a scramble in the first half. Many quarterbacks would have been down and maybe stayed out. Not Burrow.
“He was really thumped on the Auburn sideline. He bounced back up and ran to the huddle energized. He could have stayed down to catch his breath, but he didn’t. His natural throwing talent alone is obvious, but add that alonf with his toughness and it makes him special,” April marveled.
In the national title game. LSU had at the ball at their own seven-yard line. Burrow stepped back, escaped a Clemson blitz and connected on a 33-yard completion to tight end Thaddeus Moss. It didn’t count but the moment stuck with Spril.
“That was a phenomenal throw,” Bobby said. “The play was called back because an o-lineman was downfield. A play like that can be a downer after a great play. He was not phased one bit. He showed how mentally tough he is, like Cool Hand Luke.”
Myles Brennan is next in line to fill Burrow’s massive shoes. Set to turn 67, April has seen it all. Will LSU have to replace him, too? Is he ready to ride out into the sunset?
“I’m going back in 2020,” April answered with a satisfied smile, “I’ve already been back.”
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Born and raised in the New Orleans area, Rene Nadeau has been involved in sports ever since his earliest memories. Rene played basketball, wrestled, ran track, and was an All-District running back in football at John F. Kennedy High School. He went on to be a member of the LSU football program, developing a passion for the game in even…