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Minnesota Football: Special teams have been far from elite under P.J. Fleck

Evaluating how special teams have impacted the Gophers’ chances of winning

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 10 Western Illinois at Minnesota

This season, Minnesota ranks 74th nationally and 10th in the Big Ten in kickoff return defense, allowing an average of 20.5 yards per return. But here’s the catch: They’ve only allowed six kickoffs to be returned all season, tied with Texas A&M and Colorado State for the fewest in the country. The team’s 58 touchbacks, courtesy of Dragan Kesich, are the fifth-most in the country.

The emphasis on touchbacks encapsulates P.J. Fleck’s risk-averse philosophy. His fixation on time of possession comes from a desire to reduce the amount of opportunities the opponent has to score. Touchbacks serve a similar function, eliminating the opportunity to return a kickoff for a touchdown, but they also guarantee the opposing offense starting field position at the 25-yard line. Shouldn’t the goal of your kickoff unit be to pin your opponent as far back as possible?

To be clear, I’m not one to complain about touchbacks on kickoffs, but I think that the Gophers’ reliance on them provides a window into how Fleck views special teams. When used effectively, special teams can be a weapon. Pinning your opponent deep on kickoffs, flipping the field with a punt, and creating a short field for your offense with a kickoff or punt return are all ways that special teams can help your chance of winning. But more often than not, Fleck’s focus seems to be on ensuring that special teams don’t hurt their chances of winning.

Touchbacks are one example, and punt returns are another. Minnesota is currently tied for 90th nationally in punt returns, averaging six yards per return. But they only returned 13 punts all season. The Gopher defense forced an average of 4.9 punts per game, meaning they only returned about 22% of the punts they received. Even worse, Minnesota ranked 101st in gross opponent punt yards per game (218.7). For the most part, they seem to have been content to simply take whatever the opposing punt unit was willing to give them.

Is there anything wrong with essentially playing it safe on special teams? I think that’s up for debate. But in trying to evaluate the impact of that approach, I went looking for a way to quantitate it. Lo and behold, I found exactly what I was looking for from Football Outsiders.

Football Outsiders measures kickoff return efficiency (KRE), kickoff efficiency (KE), punt return efficiency (PRE), and punt efficiency (PE), calculating the scoring value gained or lost per kickoff return, kickoff, punt return, or punt. The values, as you can see in the team below, are represented as the team’s standard deviation above or below average for each category.

If you look at kickoff efficiency, the Gophers have been below average five out of the last six years. The same goes for punt return efficiency, with the lone exception being 2018, which was the last time Minnesota returned a punt for a touchdown. I’m not sure I would have expected punt efficiency to be where the Gophers are most consistently solid, though obviously Mark Crawford has had his fair share of struggles the last three years, especially in 2020 and 2022.

Football Outsiders also offers a general special teams ranking, combining kickoff return, kickoff, punt return, punt, and field goal efficiency into one overall rating.

As you can see, with the exception of 2018, special teams have been far from elite at Minnesota under Fleck. While his hope may be for special teams to be a neutral factor in the outcome of the game, that conservative approach could be harmful to the team than he realizes.