Position Review: Special Teams

Arizona's special teams were a strength and a weakness for the Wildcats during the season. Both the kicker and punter have graduated and the leading kick returner is transferring. Read on to find out who might replace them and more.

This year: An aspect of the game of football that is often overlooked is the play of special teams. Often special teams' players are overlooked when they do their job, but are criticized relentlessly for mistakes that they make.

Arizona had plenty of problems with special teams throughout the past few years, but Head Coach Rich Rodriguez and his supporting coaches were able to fix a few things in the first year of his reign in Tucson.

John Bonano – The senior place kicker was a bright spot for the Wildcats. Just a season before, Arizona had struggled to kick field goals and extra points. Bonano was given a shot at kicking duties after Mike Stoops was let go and took that confidence into the offseason, winning the kicking job under Rodriguez.

Bonano was the only kicker to see action this season, leaving his backup, Jaime Salazar, on the sidelines. The senior connected on fourteen of twenty field goals with his longest of 46-yards coming in an upset victory over Oklahoma State. He also made 58 of 59 extra point attempts. However, he made up his one missed PAT by running in a two-point conversion later in the same game.

Kyle Dugandzic – Arizona's punter for the season performed an admirable job and individually ranked in the top five in the conference. Dugandzic punted 52 times on the season with an average of 43.2 yards per punt. He was not far off from the lead, as he was just an average of four yards short of the leader. In addition, his longest punt, seventy yards, was second in the Pac-12 this season.

Richard Morrison – For a majority of the season, Morrison was trotted out every time that the defense earned a stop and was forced to punt. The junior was trained as a quarterback, receiver, and punt returner and was used as a jack-of-all-trades.

Morrison had his ups and downs throughout the year, which eventually ended in him losing time as a receiver and losing the punt-returning job to Sean Willet. Early in the season, he had struggles with catching punts. The junior dropped a couple punts over the course of a few games and fumbled the ball as a receiver as well.

He also did good things for the Wildcats. Against Washington, Morrison returned a punt 63-yards for a touchdown. His overall return average was 10.2 yards, a number that would be good enough for third best in the conference if he had returned a few more punts.

Daniel Jenkins – The junior running back was the primary kick returner for a majority of the season. It was no secret that Rodriguez was often disappointed with the kickoff return team and part of it was the personnel.

Jenkins was plagued with poor decision-making for the most part, but also had trouble with ball control on kickoffs. There were various times during the season that he chose to bring the ball out of the end zone instead of kneeling and taking a touchback. With the new rules taking effect and placing a touchback at the 25-yard line, Jenkins' 20.6 yard return average often put him behind that mark with his returns.

Who's gone: Daniel Jenkins (transferred), John Bonano (graduated), Kyle Dugandzic (graduated), Jaime Salazar (graduated),

Who's back: Johnny Jackson (sophomore), Kylan Butler (senior), Jared Baker (sophomore), Richard Morrison (senior), Casey Skowron (sophomore), Jake Smith (senior), Drew Riggleman (sophomore), Sean Willet (senior)

Outlook: For the kicking game, both starters were lost along with the backup place kicker. Both positions will be difficult to fill, as they were easily the best part of the special teams unit.

At place kicker, Bonano had been a solid performer, compared to his predecessor, Alex Zendejas. He was not as accurate with field goals as the coaches would've liked him to be, but he didn't struggle with extra points.

All reports have stated that Jake Smith may be the answer for the Wildcats in the short term. He will have one final year of eligibility after he played his first two season with Syracuse and Youngstown State. He pushed himself into competition after walking on the team last spring, putting a solid effort into getting noticed.

At punter, Arizona only has one option at this point. Drew Riggleman joined the team as a walk-on in 2011. He redshirted his first year and contended for the back-up punter role this season. He has not punted for the Wildcats in his career, but is the only option at this point.

Towards the end of the season, the coaches began making changes in the return units. Richard Morrison eventually lost his job to Sean Willet. As a junior, Willet took the opportunity to get on the field and worked with it. He didn't have any problems catching the ball and even had a higher return average (12.7) on his three returns.

Jenkins was the main kick returner for a majority of the season. Later in the season, Johnny Jackson was given a chance to return kicks. He had better decision-making, but had a lower return average. Jackson had five returns for 18.2 yards each. He was given more chances as the year went on, but may not be the exact answer for the Wildcats.

With new players coming into the program with plenty of speed, there should be some turnover in the return game. It is unclear yet who will be given a shot at returning punts and kicks, but some of the young receivers should get a chance.

The kicking game is going to work itself out. Smith is a good place kicker, but there are questions at the punter position.

Special teams was a strength for the team this season, but should be better next season as the staff begins shaping the unit with their own personnel.


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