Bears giving away ground on special teams

Despite presence of Brendan Bigelow and Keenan Allen in the return game, California is struggling on special teams.

BERKELEY, Calif. – California is not in a position to give away any advantage it can manufacture, which makes their performance on special teams that much more galling through five games.

Outside of punt returns, where junior wide receiver Keenan Allen has provided a spark, the Golden Bears have been thoroughly mediocre in any and every area, from kicking to coverage.

Aside from the obvious game-changers, notably kicker Vincenzo D'Amato's three missed field goals in the 35-28 loss at Ohio State, Cal has been hemorrhaging small mistakes that can add up when its four losses have come by a total of 42 points to teams that have a combined record of 16-3.

Against Arizona State, they had two penalties on punt returns and another on punt coverage, giving away 40 yards of field position in the process. With eight penalties now on the season – two others were declined – they have been flagged in every area save kick returns, where Cal ranks seventh in the Pac-12 and 78th nationally in yards per return despite the presence of sophomore running back Brendan Bigelow.

They rank seventh in net punting, ninth in kickoff coverage.

Linebacker Dan Camporeale, who is on every special teams unit except for punt block, chalked it up to players pressing too much.

"When things haven't been going our way, we're stressing a little bit," Camporeale said. "We're trying to make a play happen on special teams. This could be a huge momentum changer, so we're trying to make a play, get that big block or big thing and we get too overzealous."

Some of that comes from the presence of Allen and Bigelow, who represent one of the better pair of return specialists on the West Coast. Allen is averaging 13.55 yards per punt return and ranks third in the conference, while Bigelow is averaging 25.11 yards per kick return, fourth-best in the Pac-12.

Knowing what they are capable of sometimes results in errors in blocking.

"We got a great returner, he's going to make some guys miss, so if you happen to miss your block, turn around and get somebody else," Camporeale said. "You got to get back to getting technique down right and not trying to do too much."

Camporeale, a redshirt junior from Lafayette, Calif., has embraced his increased role on special teams and is trying to impart that message that could apply to the entire team.

"We know this start hasn't been acceptable by any means. We're just using that frustration to get back to work. Any energy expended on anything else other than getting back to work is useless," said Camporeale, who had a career-high six tackles against Arizona State.

His favorite role on special teams has been covering kickoffs, a relatively new pursuit.

"I haven't played much of it, but I'm getting more opportunities as of late, and I love to run down the field, make a big hit and try to find my way through there, try to make another big play and get that ball loose," Camporeale said.

Despite the new rule moving kickoffs up to the 35-yard line in an attempt to reduce high-impact collisions, Cal has seen nearly 72 percent of those plays result in a return, including 19 of 28 kickoffs by D'Amato and 22 of 29 to the Bears' return men.

That could change this week, as Jeff Locke has 30 touchbacks on his 35 kickoffs this season.

"But I still think the opportunities are there on both sides," Camporeale said of the intent of the change. "Guys are getting a little farther down, but they are not getting as much of a head start so they are not full speed as soon. Other than a few more touchbacks, I think it has changed that much, It comes back to getting your job done, and the plays are still there."

Sitting at a dismal 1-4, Cal certainly needs plays wherever it can find them.

Dan Greenspan is the publisher of Cal Sports Digest and writes about the Pac-12 for Fox Sports Next. Follow him on Twitter @DanGreenspan.


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