TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- In the past two seasons, Florida State has punted 91 times in 28 games. Nationally, only Navy has employed its punter less often since the start of 2012, which is why it’s understandable that the Seminoles’ most glaring weakness has largely flown beneath the radar.
In fact, as Florida State prepared for the national championship game last season, confident fans routinely chalked up the punting game as perhaps the only area where Auburn held a distinct advantage, and how much could punting matter in a game like that anyway?
Of course, the Tigers proved a bit more difficult an opponent than those projections assumed, and as fate would have it, punting mattered a lot.
Had Kermit Whitfield not returned a fourth-quarter kickoff for a score, had Jameis Winston not rallied his troops on the final drive, had Kelvin Benjamin not snagged the game-winning touchdown with just seconds to spare, the one area of Florida State’s championship team that wasn’t talked about all season -- the punting -- might have been the single biggest reason the Seminoles came up short in Pasadena.
With FSU ahead 3-0 in the first quarter, Auburn's Steven Clark came on to punt, booming a kick that the Auburn coverage team downed at the 2. The Seminoles went nowhere on the ensuing drive, and Cason Beatty’s resulting punt was a line drive that Auburn's Chris Davis returned 22 yards to the FSU 22. Auburn took advantage of the field position for a touchdown that started a 21-0 run.
In the game, Clark punted six times. Five were downed inside the 20, none resulted in a return by Florida State. Beatty, meanwhile, punted six times as well. Only one was downed inside the 20.
In the end, punting didn’t cost FSU a national championship, and as the Seminoles get set to open spring practice in 2014, Beatty’s performance is again likely to fade into the background as bigger concerns on offense and defense grab the headlines. And, again, Jimbo Fisher has no obvious alternatives to his two-year incumbent punter in spite of a now-substantive track record of struggles. But as the quest to replace Timmy Jernigan or develop young receivers takes center stage, it's worth keeping an eye on how tied Fisher remains to Beatty and whether the Seminoles might start looking at giving some work to a walk-on.
On national signing day, Fisher was asked about the punting potential of quarterback recruit J.J. Cosentino, who has a big leg to go with his strong arm. Fisher didn’t laugh off the idea, and while it’s unlikely Cosentino’s redshirt would be burned for punting purposes, it’s a telling statement that fans -- let alone Fisher -- would even consider it.
So why should punting be a focus for Florida State in 2014? The numbers are gruesome.
First, in Beatty’s first two seasons as the Seminoles' punter, FSU has averaged 38.9 yards, which is the worst in the ACC and seventh-worst among AQ teams.
But more than simply the short kicks, FSU has looked awful trying to cover Beatty’s boots. Despite fielding a punt coverage unit with as many standout athletes as any team in the nation -- including several veterans -- Florida State allows 14.7 yards per punt return behind Beatty, the fourth-worst average in the nation. The Seminoles are netting just 35.3 yards per punt during Beatty’s tenure, easily the worst by any BCS-qualifying schools. (It's perhaps worth noting that Alabama leads the country in punting and net punting, while also averaging the fifth fewest punts per game.)
Two numbers have kept the Seminoles' punting shortcomings from being a serious issue -- first, FSU has punted so rarely; and second, that a relatively low percentage of Beatty’s (usually short) punts have been returned (24 percent, 20th nationally). But, as Florida State saw in both the NC State game in 2012 and the national championship game in January, a few bad kicks can dramatically change the outcome of a game and, in turn, the outcome of a season.
Beatty did show some improvement as a sophomore, adding roughly 3 yards per punt to his average, but at the same time, FSU’s coverage team surrendered nearly 7 more yards per return. In other words, the added distance on punts likely came at the expense of hang time. Meanwhile, just 28.5 percent of his punts were downed inside the 20 -- nearly half the rate he enjoyed in 2012.
Beatty’s struggles were a minor blemish on an otherwise sterling season in 2013, but the schedule gets tougher this season, and it’s unlikely Florida State will win all its games by an average of 40 points again. And, as last year’s national title game proved, it doesn’t take a season’s worth of bad punts to torpedo a team’s goals. Sometimes, it can come down to one bad kick.