No one has ever asked Les Miles if he gets a kick from champagne.
No need to ask if he’s getting his kicks from LSU’s kickoff team.
It might be nitpicking the hide of a beastly strong No. 2-ranked team with a microscope, but the kickoff game has been the Tigers’ most glaring weakness through the first three contests of 2011.
Through a combination of graduation, injury and inexperience, LSU’s worksheet on kickoffs clearly needs some work.
“We’re not happy with the kickoffs,” said Drew Alleman, whose power in his kicking leg has been short-circuited by a knee injury he suffered on a kick return against Oregon. “I’m not happy with it. But I’m going to get rehab, get this leg better and for sure we’re going to achieve our goals in the future.”
In 2010, LSU averaged 63.6 yards per kickoff, allowing an average of 21.2 yards per return for a net of 43.0. The Tigers had five touchbacks (though none, it must be said, through the first three games).
Through the first three games of this season, LSU is averaging 59.2 yards per kickoff, though that stat is skewed heavily by Alleman’s 31-yard lob of an onside kick attempt in the third quarter last Thursday against Mississippi State.
The Tigers are statistically doing a better job of defending kickoffs, allowing an average of 17.3 yards per return. But the net is down to 41.9 yards (again a stat skewed by the onside attempt) and there are no touchbacks.
By comparison LSU’s opponent Saturday, No. 16 West Virginia, is averaging 64.9 yards per kickoff, a net of 44.4 with an average return of 20.5 yards and two touchbacks.
In the Mississippi State game, the Bulldogs never started after an LSU kickoff deeper than their 30-yard line. Not a deadly sin for the Tigers considering they held State’s potent offense to a pair of field goals in a 19-6 win, but problematic against a team that returns the ball as well as the Mountaineers.
West Virginia averages 28.2 yards per kickoff return, tops in the Big East and 12th nationally. The Mountaineers return game is led by wide receiver Tavon Austin, who averages 29.4 yards per return with a 100-yard return for a touchdown in the season opener with Marshall.
Clearly, kicking short to the Mountaineers could put LSU in the danger zone of a play that could potentially decide the game.
“We need to help our defense out with field position and bail out the offense,” said D.J. Howard, a walk-on kicker who has punted for Brad Wing (knee) the past two weeks and handled kickoff duties for Alleman in Game 2 against Northwestern State.
The Tigers have spent their extended period of preparation since the Mississippi State game making kickoffs a point of emphasis, even considering pulling the likely redshirt off freshman James Hairston by giving him the job.
There have been encouraging signs, though, starting with Alleman, who finally appears to be regaining his strength.
“I liked how James Hairston kicked the ball long on kickoffs,” Miles said Wednesday. “Drew Alleman is returning back to health. His ball looked much deeper.”
Miles said Wing, who averaged 41.3 yards on six punts against Oregon, is also improving and at this point appears likely to regain the punting duties from Howard. A former soccer player who never played a live football game until he thumped his first football against Northwestern State, Howard is averaging 38.9 yards on six punts the past two games.
“I like the fact that we get Brad back to handle punts,” Miles said.
Wing is focusing on punting and not kickoffs, Alleman said. Wing could return to holding on place kicks, a duty that has been handled in his absence by sophomore Seth Fruge.
“It depends on how it feels this week,” Alleman said of his leg. “D.J. and Hairston are doing a great job. They’ll be there.”
Another leg that will apparently be in the mix next year belongs to LSU soccer goalkeeper Mo Isom.
The senior told The Daily Reveille at LSU that she has been training for nine months and will try out in the spring as a place-kicker and kickoff specialist.
Isom will complete her eligibility in soccer this fall and would have one year of eligibility in football.