As Thomas McGaughey Jr. begins work on his new job as 49ers special teams coordinator, he faces two very specific challenges: improve the 49ers’ punt- and kick-return units.
In 2014, the 49ers ranked 29th in the league in punt returns, averaging just 6.5 yards. The kickoff-return unit was better, ranking ninth at 24.5 yards, but also didn’t score a touchdown.
Rookie Bruce Ellington showed flashes of potential as a returner of both punts and kickoffs, averaging 8.2 yards on punt returns with a long of 23, and 25.6 on kickoffs with a long of 38, but the team went through several players at both positions, including Perrish Cox, Chris Cook, Carlos Hyde and Trindon Holliday.
And, the 49ers didn’t rank among the NFL’s best in overall special teams performance. Despite the presence of Brad Seely – one of the league’s best special teams coaches, who now is across the bay in Oakland – the Niners slipped badly in 2014. The 49ers ranked 23rd overall in special teams effectiveness, based on the annual survey compiled by Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News.
Now the special teams will be under the direction of McGaughey, who was special teams coordinator of the New York Jets last season. McGaughey’s units ranked 20th overall in the NFL.
McGaughey has plenty of experience, having served as special teams coordinator at LSU for three seasons when Odell Beckham Jr. and Tyrann Mathieu were All-America returners. He also was assistant special teams coordinator of the New York Giants from 2007 to 2010, an assistant special teams coach with the Denver Broncos and an assistant coach with the Scottish Claymores of NFL Europe in 2002 when he worked with his new boss, Jim Tomsula.
One of McGaughey’s players at LSU was safety Eric Reid, who now will enter his third NFL season in San Francisco.
If the 49ers are to get better field position in 2015, they’re going to need McGaughey to find or develop more dangerous return men.
But will he be able to? Last season, the Jets ranked 30th in the NFL in punt returns and 19th in kickoff returns. McGaughey acknowledged to reporters late in the season that his special teams were “a work in progress.”
“I think our kickoff coverage unit has been pretty good,” he said. “Punt coverage probably hasn’t been as good as I want it to be, protection and coverage-wise. Kickoff return, we’ve been up and down.
“Punt return, we’ve been awful, to be honest with you. I think we could do a lot of things better in that phase moving forward. Obviously, that always starts with me.”
Now, he has a whole new challenge in San Francisco.