BATON ROUGE, La. -- LSU's punt coverage team surrendered 59 return yards in the entire 2012 season. That total dropped to 47 yards last fall. In fact, LSU's punt team hadn't allowed 100 return yards in a season since 2008.
The Tigers' streak ended last Saturday, however, when Florida's Andre Debose scorched LSU for 115 yards on two punt returns -- one of which went for a 62-yard touchdown.
That begs an obvious question: Was the problem simply that LSU was trying to corral one of the best return men in SEC history -- Debose is tied for third in the conference's career record book with five kick returns for touchdowns -- or was something lacking on the coverage units?
“It was a combination of both,” said LSU cornerback Tre'Davious White, one of the Tigers' punt coverage team members. “He's a great returner, not to take nothing away from him, but watching film there were definitely some things that we did wrong. There were some wrong angles that we took and did some things that we need to clean up.”
As White mentioned, the Tigers' issues were twofold. Punter Jamie Keehn accepted some of the blame for Debose's long returns, saying that he should have kicked the ball higher in order to give his teammates more time to sprint downfield. But White and fellow coverage man Deion Jones admitted that the group should have done a better job of defending the areas they were assigned to cover.
“It was just the little things about our lane integrity, and stuff that we worked, but we didn't really stress, and it wound up showing when we took the field,” Jones said. “We saw this could hurt us, and it almost did.”
The Tigers still managed to win 30-27 despite Debose's two long returns, but those runbacks were a blow to the collective ego of an LSU punt coverage team that hadn't allowed a touchdown since Ole Miss' Marshay Green's 44-yard score in 2007.
“It hurt us. We didn't know what it was at first,” Jones said. “We'd been getting by with it each week and then somebody exposes it and it's like, ‘Oh, this is what it was.' ”
As for Keehn, his numbers are actually up from last season, when he averaged 41.0 yards per punt and the Tigers ranked eighth in the SEC in net punting (punting average minus opponent return average) at 38.1 ypp.
After Debose's long returns inflated opponents' punt return average against LSU from 1.47 yards per return to 4.0, the Tigers are currently the only SEC team to have surrendered at least 100 punt returns yards in 2014 (177 yards on 44 punts). LSU ranks fourth in the league in net punting, however, at 41.1 ypp and Keehn is third in the league with an average of 45.6 ypp.
“We have got a weapon there, we've just got to make sure that our guys recognize their responsibility to cover,” LSU coach Les Miles said.
Keehn said he should have punted the ball higher against Florida, but in his defense, LSU was backed up against its own end zone on both punts that Debose returned. LSU's offense stalled at its own 10-yard line before Keehn launched a 52-yard punt that Debose returned for an early touchdown, and LSU was on its own 11 when Debose later returned a 51-yard Keehn punt to the Tigers' 9.
Those are hardly ideal circumstances when punting to one of the conference's all-time most dangerous return men.
“The direction was good, distance was good. [We needed] a bit more hangtime from me, give my guys a little more of a chance to get down there,” Keehn said. “The hangtime probably didn't match the distance. I probably outkicked the coverage a little bit there, but when I'm backed up in my own end zone, I'm trying to hit the biggest ball I can and trying to flip the field.”
Nonetheless, LSU is typically the team that creates huge momentum swings with explosive returns, not the one that surrenders them. Those lapses caught the Tigers off guard, and were the focus of extra attention when they returned to the practice field on Monday.
Saturday's opponent, Kentucky, isn't nearly as dangerous in the return game -- the Wildcats are 10th in the SEC in punt return average at 8.4 -- but the Tigers know they can't afford to remain sloppy while defending their coverage lanes.
“I feel like going into Saturday, it'll show because we practiced it hard [Monday],” White said. “Debose, he's a great returner, not to take anything away from him, but I feel if we do those things right that we did wrong, it could have probably limited some of those yards that he got.”