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LSU special teams coordinator Greg McMahon coaches in a drill during spring practice, Thursday, March 21, 2019, on LSU's campus in Baton Rouge, La.

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HOUMA — There was no question, hardly a hesitation, when Greg McMahon was asked about the chances that incoming place-kicker Cade York would play right away.

"He's our kicker," said McMahon, who is entering his third year as LSU's special teams coordinator. "He's our kicker. He's got to compete and perform."

The high school All-American hasn't arrived on campus yet in Baton Rouge, and already, the expectations are as high for York as they could be.

Much of it has to do with who York will be replacing: Cole Tracy, the Division II Assumption College graduate transfer who broke seven school records in his one season at LSU and made the 42-yard, game-winning kick to beat Auburn in 2018.

"(Tracy) definitely had an amazing year," York told The Advocate in February. "That's going to be hard to live up to. I know people will compare me to him. I want that. I want to do what I can to earn the job."

That kind of response outlines what McMahon said the LSU coaches were looking for in a kicker: someone with confidence, who isn't going to back down from a challenge.

"I like his moxie," McMahon said Monday night, on the third leg of the LSU Coaches Caravan at the Houma Walk-On's. "The longer you do this, you're looking for certain characteristics. Think about this: When you're a placekicker in the SEC or the NFL, you've got to be able to deal with pressure. You've got to be able to deal with expectations. You've got to be able to deal with weakness. We like this player. There's a confidence about this player, and it's obvious how strong his leg is."

The 6-foot-2 York made a 59-yard field goal during February's Under Armour All-American game, which was the longest in the game's history. The distance would have also easily beaten the LSU school record of 54 yards, held by Tracy, Wade Richey and Ron Lewis.

But the Prosper, Texas, native will have to make such kicks on a grander stage than a nonconsequential All-Star game, and McMahon said the coaching staff dug deep into his character with high school coaches and mentors to ensure York has what it takes.

"Cade York is going to be an outstanding player," LSU coach Ed Orgeron said in Shreveport last week. "But you know what? He's got to kick those field goals against Auburn and make those things."

McMahon said finding a kicker is "no different than when you're looking for a quarterback," that they need "a leader" who is "confident."

And the Tigers have felt the bite that poor special teams can have, perhaps most prevalent in a 21-17 Citrus Bowl loss to Notre Dame in 2017, when the Tigers missed two field goals.

Orgeron's response is similar to that of former Florida State coach Bobby Bowden, who began to sign elite kicking recruits after suffering two wide rights to Miami in 1991 and 1992 that likely cost his program national championships.

By signing Tracy, LSU's 87.8 field goal percentage in 2018 improved drastically from its 59.3 percentage in 2017, and Tracy finished the season as one of three finalists for the Lou Groza Award.

LSU's entire special teams unit improved in McMahon's first year as full-time special teams coordinator. He'd spent the 2017 season as an analyst who couldn't interact with players, and he was promoted to his new position when the NCAA permitted football teams to expand their full-time staff to 10 coaches.

In 2018, the Tigers ranked second nationally in special teams efficiency, a statistic by Football Outsiders that measures the success of each section of special teams. LSU ranked 38th in 2017.

LSU improved in nearly every statistical category of special teams.

  • Kickoff return average (24.67 yards per return in 2018; 18.33 in 2017)
  • Net punting (44 yards in 2018; 41.9 in 2017)
  • Touchback percentage (89.87 percent in 2018; 45.83 in 2017)

Starting last season, the NCAA allowed teams to fair catch kickoffs anywhere within the 25-yard line and receive a touchback, which is one of the reasons LSU's kickoff return average increased.

But fewer teams adapted better than LSU, which improved from ranking 114th nationally in the nation in kickoff return in 2017 to 13th nationally in 2018.

As a kickoff returner in today's game, McMahon said, "you kind of pick your opportunities," whether it be deciding to fair catch a ball that breaks toward the right sideline, or another where a returner has to alter his body to catch a kickoff. McMahon said that's why running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire will be LSU's main kickoff returner in 2019.

"Clyde does a nice job of that," said McMahon, who coached special teams with the New Orleans Saints from 2006-16. "He's got a real good feel, and he's got balance. He's got vision. Reminds me a lot of (former Saints running back) Pierre Thomas. He's like that as a runner."

For now, that gives Edwards-Helaire the edge over freshman phenom Derek Stingley, the cornerback who is tasked with improving perhaps the most volatile position in all of 2018 at punt returner.

Last season, wide receiver Jonathan Giles muffed a punt against Texas A&M, as did Justin Jefferson against Central Florida.

During his career at The Dunham School, Stingley returned 15 kickoffs/punts for touchdowns, including a stretch of three consecutive games in 2018 when he returned punts for touchdowns.

"Any time you've got a guy with a skill level like this kid," McMahon said, "you've got to do a good job of taking advantage of his skills."

This article originally ran on theadvocate.com.

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