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Brad Craddock, Will Likely lead dominant Maryland special teams unit into 2015

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Maryland has the best kicker in college football and an elite return man, but punting looms as a question mark.

Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Brad Craddock was the best kicker in college football last season. It wasn't even close.

No, that's not an earth-shattering statement. Voters for the Lou Groza Award, given annually to the best kicker in the country, have already decided it. Craddock's 94.7 percent field goal-kicking - he didn't miss a kick until Maryland's last regular season game - made him the only viable candidate other than Florida State's outstanding Roberto Aguayo.

But, just like kicking itself, there was more to Craddock's excellence than field goals. If one combines field goal efficiency with kickoff efficiency, Maryland's kicking (which was just Craddock) was the best in the sport by an even bigger margin than for field goals alone.

I've taken the field goal efficiency (FGE) for every team in FBS and added it to each team's kickoff efficiency (KE) to get what we'll call "field goal and kickoff efficiency," or FGKE. The two base stats here, FGE and KE, are the scoring values per play each team gets, relative to the national average, every time its field goal or kickoff unit takes the field. (There's much more here, but we expect teams to have 1.54 field goal tries and 4.84 kickoffs per game.) It turns out that Maryland (i.e. Craddock) blew away the rest of the country in this combined measure in 2014.

That some teams use different kickers for field goal tries and kickoffs, while Craddock handled the totality of Maryland's duties, only makes his dominance more impressive.

All of Maryland's kicking efficiency stats, with national rank:

Maryland kicking (Brad Craddock) national ranks, 2014
FGE Rk KE Rk FGKE Rk
0.869 1 -0.086 92 0.783 1

Maryland lost almost one-tenth of a point per kickoff relative to average, but that wasn't on Craddock. His 62.45-yard average on kickoffs put Maryland 29th in the country, and his 38.67 percent touchback rate was 51st. He kicked just one ball out of bounds. But Maryland's kickoff coverage unit was bad enough to turn the unit into a net negative. The Terps gave up seven kickoff runbacks of 30-plus yards and another of more than 70. The 22.87-yard average return the unit allowed was 106th in the country, so it's a good thing Craddock generally had teams catching the ball close to their own goal line. Maryland special teams coordinator Andre Powell left for a job at Pitt after last season, and Randy Edsall is still (we think) coaching the unit himself working with a committee of assistants to handle the job. Whoever runs Maryland's special teams should have no higher priority than fixing the team's bad kickoff coverage.

What's stupid good about Craddock is that he was still the most valuable kicker in the country by a big margin. On just field goals, he added almost nine-tenths of a point (or 29 percent the value of a made field goal) every time he lined up behind holder Mike Tart. Oregon State clocked in at 0.715, and Florida State (with Groza runner-up Aguayo) at 0.647. Bake in kickoffs to measure overall kicking performance, and Craddock's still first. Oregon State, which split its kickoff duties between two players, is still second, and Aguayo's still third. Craddock > all of them.

If anyone tries to tell you Brad Craddock wasn't the best kicker in college football last season, she's wrong. The smart money is on a repeat performance in 2015.

Maryland's punting could be all over the map

Last season, Maryland punted 86 times, second-most in FBS and just one boot behind "leader" Texas. The Terps would be best served to not do that again.

They lose three-year starter Nathan Renfro, who graduated with eligibility remaining and transferred to Tennessee. Replacing him will be one of three newbies, but good luck handicapping this race. The candidates are true freshmen Nicholas Rubinowicz and Nicholas Pritchard and redshirt freshman Lee Shrader. Someone had better be good.

Pritchard and Shrader punted in Maryland's spring game. We don't have official stats from that day, but suffice it to say more than one punt did not travel 25 yards from scrimmage, and people in the press box laughed about it. For Noted Big Ten Punting Enthusiasts, this is something to keep an eye on. Teams that win field position have statistically great odds of winning games , so it's something for Edsall to keep an eye on, too.

For what it's worth, Renfro was a better punter than Maryland fans ever gave him credit for being. The Terps' punting efficiency last year was -0.037 points per punt,  worse than the baseline average of zero but actually above the national median at 48th overall. A few really good punting teams dragged the FBS mean higher than most teams could reach. For the Big Ten, in leg strength terms, Renfro was actually a tick above average:

It's not impossible to win with bad punting. Ohio State and Alabama were 121st and 126th in the country in punting efficiency, and one of those teams pounded the other in the College Football Playoff. If its punting falters that badly in 2015, Maryland probably won't be able to pull off the same feat.

The return game should be effective

Will Likely was a star cornerback as a sophomore. When he got the chance, he was a star returner, too.

Likely had problems muffing punts as a freshman, but he got over those and led Maryland to the No. 5 punt return efficiency in the nation. Upon taking the kick return job from an injured Stefon Diggs late in the season, Likely pushed Maryland to 44th nationally in KRE to go with his great work bringing back punts. He's listed atop Maryland's depth chart at both positions going into 2015, and it's safe to expect high-quality returning again.

In combined kick return and punt return efficiency last season, Maryland was No. 8 nationally last season, gaining 0.059 points relative to average every time the opposition kicked or punted. This feels odd to type, but Maryland could be even better here now that Likely will take kickoff returns instead of Diggs. After averaging 28.5 yards per kickoff return as a freshman and scoring twice in 2012, Diggs fell off badly.

Maryland Kick Returners, 2013-2014
Returns Average Yards Touchdowns
Stefon Diggs 32 23.7 0
Will Likely 44 27.8 1

Nobody else ran back more than four kicks in either 2013 or 2014. It's been a split between Diggs and Likely, with Diggs having more chances last season and Likely having more the year before that. Despite Diggs's considerable talents elsewhere, Likely has been significantly better receiving kicks.

All in all, Likely was third in the Big Ten in punt return average and would've been third in kick return average if he'd qualified. He's as good an all-around football player as the Big Ten has anywhere, and if the Terps wanted to play him regularly on offense, he might be their best wide receiver. As it is, he's a special teams tour de force.

How much does any of this matter?

Minimally, but still enough to be worth talking about.

Last year, Maryland's special teams efficiency (STE) was 2.17, which was No. 7 in the country. That's the total number of points per game Maryland gained relative to average through its field goal kicking, kickoffs, kickoff returns, punts and punt returns. In the grand scheme, 2.17 points per game is about as significant and insignificant as you think it is.  The average FBS team scored and conceded about 28 points per game in 2015, so an expectation of 2.17 points could mean either everything or nothing.

Of course, in real terms, no team has ever added exactly 2.17 points by doing anything, and Ohio State's going to annihilate Maryland no matter what happens on special teams. But if Maryland and some lesser opponent are locked in a one-possession game in the fourth quarter this season, and then Craddock hits a 47-yarder and the other kicker misses one from 36, or Likely returns a punt 8 yards while his counterpart for the other team calls for a fair catch, the scales could tip. The margins are thin.

Offenses and defenses will always drive the vast majority of college football's scoring, or lack thereof. To whatever extent the special teams intercede this season, it's mostly going to be good news for the Terrapins. It just won't cure all.