Sean Snyder talks USC kick, punt return options and special teams overview
Sean Snyder would have preferred to have had a full spring and normal fall camp heading into his first season coordinating USC's special teams, but ultimately the emphasis of Snyder's approach is not one of complexity anyway.
He just wants the Trojans to be fundamentally and technically sound in what they do, and to that end he thinks his units are on track leading up to the Nov. 7 season opener against Arizona State.
"We're getting to that point now where it's really starting to look like what it's supposed to and coming together," Snyder said Wednesday morning in a Zoom call with reporters. "... I've kind of said it before, a lot of the stuff with special teams I try to keep it pretty simple and for a variety of different reasons. I want to be fundamentally sound. I want us to be able to go out and execute at a fast pace and a high level. I don't want guys to have to over-process and overthink things. And again, you've got starters that are focused on opponents, focused on their position, we're installing a new defense -- there's a lot of stuff going on right now through these guys' heads. I've kept it pretty basic."
Fundamentally sound and better organized would be an improvement on its own for a special teams unit that allowed two kickoff return touchdowns last year, drew penalties for such offenses as having two players wearing the same number and generally underwhelmed.
USC ranked 57th nationally in kickoff returns at 21.1 yards per return (with 1 TD) but dead last in the FBS in defending kickoffs, allowing an average of 29.8 yards per return. The Trojans were 95th nationally in punt returns (5.6 per attempt) and a more respectable 33rd in defending punt returns (5.7).
So as far as Snyder is concerned, if he can just get those units to master basic concepts and roles and have everybody fulfill their assignments, that's a good foundation upon which to build.
"There's a lot of teams that will go out and every week they'll have a completely different scheme of what they're trying to do. My goal is to be able to bend and mold what we're doing to the teams that we're playing against and keep the players in position to where every day they're doing the same thing -- they're just getting better and better and better at it as we go on," he said. "So to answer your question, we're keeping it fairly basic right now. There's a lot of things that will go in through the course of the season and will give some variations to what we're doing, but at the end of the day their responsibilities are going to be very similar to what they're asked to do each day. So fundamentally we just want to get better."
Snyder built a strong track record of consistent results while coaching the special teams at Kansas State from 2011-18.
According to The Mercury in Manhattan, Kan., the Wildcats set or tied eight school special teams records during Snyder's tenure and from 2013-17 had a first-team All-Big 12 kick returner every season.
Morgan Burns led the country in kickoff-return touchdowns (4) and ranked third nationally in kickoff-return average in 2015.
Meanwhile, not to get too deep into the metrics, but the website Football Outsiders tracks a stat it calls its SFEI Special Teams Rating, which represents the per possession scoring advantage a team's combined special teams units would be expected to have on a neutral field against an average opponent. Snyder's Kansas State units never ranked lower than 39th nationally and were 1st in 2017, 3rd in 2014, 6th in 2012 and 12th in 2015. (For perspective, USC ranked 95th last season in that category.)
Snyder was also recognized as the special teams coordinator of the year in 2015 and 2017 by Phil Steele.
So while special teams isn't the most buzzworthy subject matter when it comes to preseason hype, there's actually legitimate intrigue and optimism that Snyder could be a difference-maker to some degree for the Trojans overall.
"I came into this and I didn't really look in the rearview mirror to be honest with you. What I've done is just come out and try to install me, install what I like to see and what I like to do. I've had great conversations with players about the expectations of what we're trying to get to," he said. "... I just want everybody to have a fresh start and be able to respond to the coaching that we're doing -- myself and the other coaches that are helping out with each unit. Coach [Craig] Naivar has been a special teams coordinator as well, and he and I sit down and we compare notes and kind of evaluate what we're doing. I'm pretty open-minded with things, I'm not completely stuck in my ways with everything, so I look for freshness and I look for things that can better what we're doing, and it changes from place to place.
"I've been very fortunate to be at one place my entire career, so this opportunity has been unbelievable and I wanted to come in with a fresh start with the players and give them a fresh start as well. In all honesty, what was done in the past, it was a different coaching style and that was fine -- everybody has their own coaching style -- but I didn't want to bring in anything that wasn't me."
Potential punt/kick returners ...
Snyder said he doesn't have firm decisions yet on who will return kicks and punts for the Trojans, but it sounds like it will be the familiar names.
"No, we're still sorting through that," he said. "Amon-Ra's been a staple back there and phenomenal, he's doing great. [Olaijah Griffin's] been doing really good back there as well. Tyler Vaughns, Stephen Carr, those guys have been doing really, really good. We're trying to get them sorted through to where we have the best combinations back there. ... That will come here pretty quick and we'll roll with it and if we have to make adjustments we'll make adjustments."
Amon-Ra St. Brown (12 returns for 66 yards) handled the bulk of the punts last year with Vaughns (7-46) also involved.
Meanwhile, leading kick returner Velus Jones transferred to Tennessee, opening up that job. Carr had the second-most kick returns on the team last year with 6, averaging 17.7 yards per attempt.
It wasn't asked, but it's somewhat surprising sophomore running back Kenan Christon, arguably the fastest player on the roster, isn't involved in that mix. Also, freshman receiver Gary Bryant Jr. would have been an intriguing option, but he's been limited through camp with a sprained ankle.
There's no mystery whatsoever about the field goal and punting units.
Redshirt junior Chase McGrath is back at kicker after making 14 of 17 field goal attempts last season, and redshirt sophomore Ben Griffiths returns for his second season as the Trojans' punter after averaging 41.17 yards per punt last year to rank 75th nationally.
Griffiths entered last season with a lot of hype and didn't reach lofty expectations in his first year transitioning from professional Australian rules football to college football. But Snyder is a former All-American punter himself and his potential impact on Griffiths is another interesting storyline this season. (Snyder went more in-depth on his punting background with us over the summer.)
"Ben's really flourished a lot, he's doing really, really well," Snyder said Wednesday. "... Ben has got such an upside, as far as potential and what he can do. The biggest thing was just consistency. Basically, we need good hang times, great hang times, good distance. Don’t want to out-punt our coverage. Getting the control, the directional punting well, those are the things that when I first saw Ben, and he’s a great talent, but it was just a little bit inconsistent, what he was doing. We cleaned up a little footwork, cleaned up his drop a little bit, and now, he’s 9 out of 10, 10 out of 10, hitting a good ball. That’s what we’re trying to get to.
"When we’re on the field, we’re getting a ball we can cover every time, and that’s the goal, that’s the objective, and not get into what I always kind of gauge things by -- the mis-hits. If we’re going to have a mis-hit, where is that mis-hit going to be? Is it going to put us in danger as far as coverage? Or is it going to be one we can still cover and not be at risk? He’s really doing well right now, and I’ve been very very pleased. What he has the potential to do this year is unlimited."
It wasn't specifically addressed, but junior Alex Stadthaus handled most of USC's kickoffs last season and is back again. Redshirt senior Damon Johnson is back as the Trojans' steady long-snapper, and Griffiths served as the holder last year.
The long snapper rarely gets any spotlight, but Johnson did Wednesday morning while talking about his consistency in the role as he now enters his fourth season as a starter.
"I feel I've done a really good job being consistent for Chase. I would say that if he's having a good year I like to take credit for it," Johnson joked. "I've had some games where I'm not pleased with myself, and with long-snapping you don't really want to be in that limelight of being mentioned. I've been told that my whole career basically. So I think I've done a pretty good job with that. I do think there are games I would like to have back, but luckily it hasn't been that much of a notice."
Said McGrath: "Since 2017, actually Damon I don't remember you ever giving me a bad snap on a field goal or anything. You've been nothing but perfect. Honestly, that makes the world of difference. My job is so much easier because every single time I go out there I know the snap-hold will be there and I don't have to worry about it and all I need to do is focus on my job. It's a really big help to have that consistency with Damon."
Clever quarantine training
While every player had to get a little creative during their time away from the program this spring and early summer due to the pandemic, Johnson came up with an especially unique way to continue to train at his craft.
"Me and my dad got really creative. We tied a tire to a tree branch and I would snap through that like a quarterback would. I just had to find ways to find targets," he said.
Said McGrath: "I actually got kicked off a few fields trying to practice during the quarantine. Stuff like that would happen, you've just kind of got to work through it, go out every day and maybe you get kicked off one day and maybe have an uninterrupted day. It's just kind of like that, finding work when you can get it."
Challenges of practice limitations
With USC working separate groups on different fields this preseason to abide by the county and state public health guidelines, Snyder said it had some impact on how he installed his special teams concepts early in camp.
"I guess let's put it this way, I've been able to challenge myself in creativity, which I haven't had to do like this for my entire career. But no, it's been interesting," he said. "We started off and we were separated offense, defense, so defensively -- because that unit takes up majority of special teams -- so what we did was we basically were able to install units I would have mostly defensive guys on, so kickoff, punt, punt return. ...
"Did the same thing with offense. Numbers were different because I'm using more defensive players. Offensively, wide receivers and running backs, tight ends primarily. We focused a little more on punt and kickoff return on the offensive side of the ball, so we were able to get some stuff in there. But it's kind of like putting a skeleton in and then you had to put it all together, so there was some retention that came out of it, which was good, so it wasn't like we were starting from scratch. We were able to come together as a team."
Snyder said he's limiting offensive/defensive starters to being on no more than two special teams units.
He was asked if there have been any standouts on the coverage and return units.
"There's been a bunch. There's a lot of guys that are really, really starting to come into it. Isaiah [Pola-Mao], Talanoa [Hufanga] have been really good, Chase Williams has been really good, Ray Scott here of late is another guy that's really popped up and done some good things, Bru McCoy, Drake London, John Jackson, just to say a few that have really started to surface. And there's more," he said. "There's quite a few guys that have really stepped up, and a lot of it for them is getting to the point of not having to, I'm not trying to think about what scheme we're trying to do, I'm not trying to think about what block I have ... and now they're to the point where they're just starting to play fast -- we know what we're doing, now we've just got to get there and make it happen."