Final assessment: Cal special teams

Despite replacing both specialists, California should be solid on special teams, especially if Keenan Allen and Brendan Bigelow can deliver a charge on punt and kick returns.

BERKELEY, Calif. – Before the 2012 season begins Saturday afternoon, Cal Sports Digest takes one final look at the Golden Bears unit by unit before predicting California's final record.

Specialist switch, or many unhappy returns
Last season punter Bryan Anger and kicker Giorgio Tavecchio gave Cal a kicking game as solid as any in the Pacific-12. Anger received first-team All-Conference honors for the third consecutive season, with the team ranking 10th nationally in net punting. Tavecchio settled in after an up-and-down career, making 20-of-23 field goals, including 5-of-7 from 40 yards or longer.

Replacing them should be a major challenge.

The Bears return running back Brendan Bigelow as their top man handling kickoffs, while All-America candidate Keenan Allen will take over as the No. 1 punt return specialist after splitting duties with Marvin Jones a year ago.

Bringing them back should be a major boon.

But based on recent history and the performance of freshman punter Cole Leininger and redshirt junior kicker Vincenzo D'Amato, Cal should again possess a formidable tandem of specialists while the return game remains uncertain.

Most glaring is lack of productivity on kickoffs. In each of the last five seasons, Cal hasn't averaged better than 21.7 yards per kick return. In 2011, they ranked 91st nationally and second-to-last in the Pac-12.

Fortunately, a new rule change could remedy that, at least in terms of kickoffs. In an attempt to reduce violent collisions that the play causes, the NCAA has moved kickoffs to the 35-yard line and touchbacks will come out to the 25-yard line. The theory is there will be more kicks into the end zone, thus more touchbacks and less impact.

However, some coaches have pointed out that it could result in more hits from tactical kicking, using the five-yard head start to try and pin opponents deep instead. The trend will be one to watch as the season goes on.

Regardless, it gives Cal another option, though Bigelow should show progress in his second season. Another year removed from knee surgeries that derailed his high school career, Bigelow had the school's first kick return for a touchdown since 2007.

There are no such physical concerns about Allen, who will likely own every major Cal receiving record by the end of his junior season. His sheer physical talents are so overwhelming it should result in plenty of big plays, though his six career punt returns have resulted in 40 yards.

Cal will need major production if it hopes to knock off its three most talented opponents – Ohio State, USC, and Oregon – teams that place a tremendous emphasis on special teams. Their best players, front line talents such as Ducks running back De'Anthony Thomas and Trojans receiver Robert Woods are on all their coverage and return units.

Back-to-back road trips to Columbus and Los Angeles will also serve as the proving grounds for Cal's new kickers, especially Leininger. Installed as the starter from the moment he signed coming out of Fruit Cove (Fla.) Bartram Trail, the freshman has proved unflappable through fall camp. Whether he can handle the Horseshoe and Coliseum will be the real test, while there is a bit more of a track record for D'Amato, hitting on 7-of-12 field goals as a freshman.

Much like Cal's offense and defense, this looks like a solid but not spectacular group. Whether they can develop into something greater is the difference between bowl eligibility and returning to elite status.

Dan Greenspan is the publisher of Cal Sports Digest and covers the Pac-12 for Fox Sports/Scout.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanGreenspan.


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