Specialists have always been a breed of their own.
Like pitchers on a baseball team, specialists train and practice separate from the rest of the team and are often the closest of any position group on a football team.
Sophomore punter Zach Von Rosenberg, who played minor league baseball for six years, said the specialists room this year is probably the most unique and special one that he’s ever been a part of, including all his years playing baseball.
Senior kicker Cole Tracy, the newest member of LSU’s revamped special teams unit, was surprised that he was so readily accepted into the family of specialists. He compares it to being the “new kid on the block,” but it felt like anything but that.
The graduate transfer from Assumption College in Massachusetts arrived during the summer on June 1. By June 2, Tracy, junior punter Josh Growden and junior long snapper Blake Ferguson were at LSU’s practice facility getting reps and working on field goals.
“Right when I got here, they opened up their arms,” Tracy said. “I live with Blake, so I see plenty of him. It’s probably the closest group that I’ve ever been apart of, and I think that helps all of us. Connor [Culp] and I and Jack [Gonsoulin], we all compete and push each other every single day. That level of competition within all of us brings us up a little bit closer every single day.”
That special connection has clearly translated well on the field. That chemistry, coupled with new special teams coordinator Greg McMahon, has propelled special teams to LSU’s most consistent unit.
On 38 kickoffs, freshman place kicker Avery Atkins has 33 touchbacks for an average of 64 yards. Growden and Von Rosenberg share punting duties. Growden usually handles shorter distance punts, with an average of 36.5 yards per punt and a long of 47, and Von Rosenberg takes longer ones, averaging 47.3 yards per punt with a high of 65.
“We spend so much time together, and we recognize things that we may or may not be doing correctly,” Von Rosenberg said. “To the chemistry thing, when you’re with somebody for three hours of practice every single day, you’re going to pick up on things. We’ll try to help on game day or even the day before the game when we have a walk through. We have each other’s backs.”
The obvious difference from the 2017 season is Tracy kicking field goals and extra points. Tracy is 12-for-14 on field goals and 20-for-20 on extra points, with those two misses coming on kicks of 50-plus yards.
While Tracy’s leg strength and detail-oriented preparation are the biggest reasons for his success, Ferguson’s snap and Growden’s hold put Tracy in the perfect position to succeed.
“I don’t ever have to think about anything besides my job, and that’s really helpful,” Tracy said. “Blake’s the best long snapper in the country, and I’ll argue that Josh is probably the best holder in the country. We have incredible chemistry.”
That chemistry did not appear completely organically. Both Growden and Ferguson said that Tracy moves a little faster than they are used to, so working out the timing was the biggest thing during the preseason.
“A lot of what we do as specialists is mental,” Ferguson said. “We’ve gotten into a muscle memory type position. When you get out onto the field, you kind of have to fall back on that. When you go out there, you’ve already been through that snap-hold-kick a million times in your head before.”
Both long snapping and holding are technical challenges that are different from every other position on a football field, mostly focused on repetition and technique. Ferguson and Growden have to work on long snapping and holding just as often as other positions do.
The specialists hold each other and themselves to a high standard. Ferguson said when he goes out on the field for a kick, he always expects to come away with three points.
“When we go out for a field goal, we’re a unit,” Ferguson said. “A lot of what goes into him making a field goal is about the operation — snap, hold and kick — so we kind of all depend on each other to hold up each other’s end of the bargain. I think we’ve done a good job of that so far and keeping the momentum rolling.”