November 11, 2010 6:19:00 AM
David Miller -
STARKVILLE -- The Mississippi State football team''s punting game hasn''t gotten enough credit for the team''s blistering start.
The No. 17 Bulldogs (7-2, 3-2 Southeastern Conference) are second in the nation in fewest punt return yards conceded with 16. That figure pops even more considering MSU has allowed 11 punt returns this season.
Last season, the Bulldogs ranked 114th in the nation with 13.31 yards given up per return. MSU punter Heath Hutchins had just 11 punts inside the 20 compared to 19 through nine games this season.
The Bulldogs'' improved punt coverage can be attributed to total team effort and consistency, coach Dan Mullen said.
"Our coverage team has done a good job getting down field and containing," Mullen said, "and Heath''s done a good job with placement of the ball, getting some good hang time to put it in positions where our coverage is there and it''s harder to return. To do that, you have to be consistent, and that''s the key for us. One bad coverage can result in a huge turning point in the game."
A coverage lapse hasn''t happened this season, even against opponents like Houston and LSU, whose punt return teams rank in the top 10 nationally.
MSU will face a No. 11 Alabama (7-2, 4-2) team at 6:15 p.m. Saturday (ESPN2) that averages 12.83 yards per punt return. Its special teams have remained a team strength despite losing Javier Arenas to the NFL''s Kansas City Chiefs.
The Crimson Tide have turned to Marquise Maze in Arenas'' absence, and his finest performance came against Ole Miss three weeks ago when he had 125 yards on six returns.
"They''re gonna have good punt return guys no matter what," Hutchins said. "But I trust our guys to get down there and make a play. I kick it and hang it up there. It really doesn''t matter who''s back there if you got eight guys in your face as soon as you catch it. It''s been working pretty well."
Hutchins'' health has played a role in the Bulldogs'' improved punt coverage this year, even though he''s averaging just a yard better on his season average. Hutchins suffered tendon damage to his hip on his kicking leg against LSU last season -- a game that skewed the team''s poor punt ranking because of Chad Jones'' 93-yard punt return.
The senior wasn''t the same after the injury, but played the rest of the year.
After returning to full fitness in the offseason, Hutchins noticed a change in how Mullen prepared the punters during game week. Instead of a high volume of kicks throughout the week, Hutchins'' routine was scaled back to help preserve his leg.
"Just like today, I did some drills and some line kicks and that was it," Hutchins said. "He''s (Mullen) kind of treated us more like a pitcher in baseball -- we''re not just out there throwing a hundred-mile-an-hour fastballs all day. I notice my leg is a lot fresher."
Although Hutchins acknowledges a boost in his performance, he credits the gunners and members of the punt team for preventing return opportunities. Of Hutchins'' 40 punts this season, 14 have been fair caught and 19 have landed inside the 20-yard line. Hutchins has just three touchbacks.
Outside players Maurice Langston and Marvin Bure have the responsibility of shaking a pair blockers and being the first down the field. Their pressure has helped MSU allow just over 1 yard per punt return this season.
"Me and Bure, we consider ourselves the fastest on the team," Langston said. "Every time we get out there it''s a race to see who can get down there the fastest. It''s a competitive thing, and that''s what the coaches instill in us. We just use this as another way to compete."
Bure, who has four tackles and a forced fumble on special teams, said spots on the punt coverage team are coveted, despite the Bulldogs'' averaging just over four punts a game.
"No matter if they''re playing first team defense or offense, everybody wants to be on special teams because that''s coach Mullen''s first thing to come up on," Bure said. "Special teams are our pride and joy because that wins games. Coach Mullen is a great special teams coach. He comes up with great schemes and we make it happen."
The forgotten factor in MSU''s improved punting is the team''s overall success. An improved defense and ball control offense have seen the team cut its turnovers in half and vault it to the top of the league in turnover margin (.78).
Field position has been crucial, Hutchins said.
"As long as we get a decent kickoff return and two first downs, which is our main goal, we should put it inside the 20 every time," Hutchins said. "Even if we get the ball on the 20 because of a touchback, if we get two first downs we''ll at least be punting from the 40. If we get two first downs, we''ll keep them backed up all night."
NOTE: Chick-fil-A Bowl representative Albert Tarica will visit Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa, Ala., on Saturday to scout the game. The teams are being scouted as potential representatives in the 2010 Chick-fil-A Bowl on Dec. 31.
The ACC and SEC team selections for the 43rd edition of the Bowl will be announced Dec. 5. The Chick-fil-A Bowl is the oldest guaranteed ACC vs. SEC matchup in the bowl.