Stats that must improve: return game

Football will be back in Eugene soon enough, but it’s always good to reflect on 2013 and see what can be learned from last season and taken into next. Leading up to spring football, we’re going to be breaking down some stats that need to improve next season.

Stat: Average distance from goal after kickoff and punt returns.

Backing that up: Last season the Oregon offense was impressive and the defense was good, but what about the special teams? It’s often a forgotten facet of the game where young and inexperienced players learn to contribute before being moved to the offensive or defensive sides of the ball. But when breaking down how much of an effect the return game has on the offense, it’s a part of the game that more people should care about.

Oregon is accustomed to being one of the top teams in the nation in many statistical categories. But the return game is a place where the Ducks really were only in the top 40-60 during the 2013 season. It’s also a place where minor improvements could make significant impacts for the Oregon offense.

  • Kick returns

On average Oregon returned each kick 21.7 yards (and accounted for one kick return TD last season). That mark puts the Ducks No. 59 nationally. Florida State led the nation in kick returns, averaging 28.2 yards per return. Stanford finished second, leading the Pac-12 with 27.4 yards per kick return. The difference between Stanford’s returns and Oregon’s returns is that of almost an entire Oregon offensive play.

A basic goal here that many teams can judge production on is the 30-yard return. With the average kickoff last season being 60.2 yards, that 30-yard return would mean a team is starting about 60 yards from their goal line. However, only 16.3 percent of the time did the Ducks return a kickoff 30-plus yards. Again, that’s a statistic that could definitely improve, leaving them at 40th in the nation.

But, what all those stats really mean is that when the special teams hit the sideline and the offense took the field, the Ducks typical started 70.2 yards from the goal line. That’s not terrible. There were only 19 teams in the nation whose special teams gave them better starting field position (Stanford’s was the best, giving them an average distance of 64.7 yards to the goal line), but it certainly could improve.

But what does this mean for the offense? If the return game generally puts the Ducks 70.2 yards from their goal line and with Oregon averaging 7.6 yards per play last season, that puts the Ducks about nine plays away from the goal line. Oregon led the nation last season in drives of 60-plus yards (68) as well as 80-plus yards (26), so a 70-yard drive isn’t terrible concerning for the Ducks. But any time Marcus Mariota and the rest of the offense can run one fewer play and be just as productive, it’s a very good thing for Oregon.

But when looking at where Oregon stands in the national spectrum when it comes to returns is a bit more concerning. Being 59th best at something isn’t the Ducks’ expectation. Even if Oregon can boost its returns to 24 yards per kickoff return (an improvement of just over two yards per return), the Ducks would likely find themselves within the top 15 next season which is a much more respectable place.

  • Punt returns

Oregon was better with punt returns than it was with kickoff returns. The Ducks averaged 12.4 yards per punt return, good enough for 20th nationally. North Carolina led the country with an impressive 18.1 yards per punt return while USC led the Pac-12 (No. 11 nationally) with 13.7 yards per punt return.

But this is another area where one extra cut or a single player holding a block just a moment longer could mean an extra yard gained by the Oregon special teams and one fewer yard to travel for the Oregon offense. They did show that they could break off big runs -- six times last season Oregon accounted for returns of at least 20 yards (T-8th nationally, T-1st in the Pac 12). But, the Ducks’ special teams just needs to do it on a more consistent basis.

The Ducks fared better in punt returns that they did in kickoff returns in 2013, but in both areas there’s certainly room for improvement, especially when looking at the ridiculous number of athletes on the Oregon roster. When looking at goals for the 2014 season, even with an offense as prolific as Oregon’s, it seems like a place where a few-yard improvement could make a lot of difference.

Other stats that must improve: