Patrick Ochs

Special team players need love too. Here’s the best in South Mississippi

Vancleave's C.J. Johnson runs the ball against West Harrison on Friday, August 25, 2017, at West Harrison High.
Vancleave's C.J. Johnson runs the ball against West Harrison on Friday, August 25, 2017, at West Harrison High. amccoy@sunherald.com file

To conclude our weekly position series on South Mississippi’s best football players, we’ll touch on the special teamers. Kickers, punters and returners are often overlooked — but not here.

The Coast has had a strong history of sending kickers and punters on to the next level. In recent years Grayson Pontius, Kevin Martinez, Mason Hunt, Brad Wall, Taylor Crabtree and others have all shown out in South Mississippi before moving on. So who’s the next big special teams dynamo to move on?

Here are some of the Coast’s top special teams standouts.

Ashton Garner

School: Ocean Springs

Class: Senior

2016 stats: 7 points, 1/1 PAT, 2/4 FG, 29.2 yards/punt, 11 touchbacks

Breakdown: Ocean Springs always seems to have a strong kicker and this year doesn’t appear to be any different. Ashton Garner mostly handled kickoffs and punts last year. Now he’s also adding field goals to his responsibilities. Although it’s early in the season, Garner has improved his punting average to 35.2 yards, with 2 of 5 landing inside the 20-yard line. He’s also 4-for-4 on PATs and 2-for-3 on field goals with a long of 45 yards — which is 6 yards shorter than his long as a junior.

Sean Gomez

School: St. Martin

Class: Senior

2016 stats: 71 points, 50/51 PAT, 7/14 FG, 42.3 yards/punt, 46 touchbacks

Breakdown: Sean Gomez has been one of the Coast’s top kickers/punters for several years now. As a junior, Gomez was 12th among Mississippi kickers with 71 points, thanks to 50 of 51 PATs and 7 of 14 field goals. He also tallied 46 touchbacks in 74 attempts and averaged 42.3 yards per punt. Gomez, who boasts a Southern Miss offer, is off to a strong start in 2017 with five touchbacks in eight attempts and 12 points on 6 of 7 PATs and 2 of 2 field goals.

Brady Groce

School: D’Iberville

Class: Senior

2016 stats: 65 points, 50/51 PAT, 5/5 FG, 32.5 yards/punt

Breakdown: D’Iberville coach Eric Collins has been high on Brady Groce and it’s easy to see why. The senior Warrior converted 50 of 51 PATs as a junior and also made all five field goal attempts with a long of 43 yards.

C.J. Johnson

School: Vancleave

Class: Junior

2016 stats: 24.8 yards/KR, 14.5 yards/PR

Breakdown: C.J. Johnson does a little of everything for Vancleave. Through two games, the junior Bulldog has rushed for 211 yards and two touchdowns, recorded 22 tackles, recovered two fumbles and accounted for 187 kick return yards and another 26 on three punt returns. Johnson even completed his lone pass of the season for a 37-yard touchdown in Vancleave’s opener. Johnson may not finish the season as the Coast’s leading returner, but he does enough all over the field to be considered a major asset for the Bulldogs.

Enrique Whaley

School: Stone

Class: Senior

2016 stats: 26.3 yards/PR, 5 PR TDs

Breakdown: Enrique Whaley has to be considered one of the more dangerous returners on the Coast this season. As a junior, Whaley returned 18 punts for 473 yards — good enough for 26.3 yards per return. As if the average wasn’t impressive enough, the senior Tomcat found the end zone on five of those 18 returns.

But wait, there’s more

Here are a few more special teamers to know: Gautier’s Kyle Gager, Picayune’s Sami Naji, Biloxi’s Cade Ganey and Hancock’s Elliott Nolan.

Patrick Ochs: 228-896-2321, @PatrickOchs

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