BERKELEY -- California ranks 106th in the nation in kickoff return yardage, 107th in punt return yardage and 108th in punt returns. Last game, the Bears' average starting position was inside their own 16-yard line. Those numbers don't just have a correlative relationship; it's causal.
Still, Bears special teams coordiantor Mark Tommerdahl says, it's all about execution.
"We've ... I hate to use this word, because I've used it before, but I'll use it again: We need to execute. We really do," says Tommerdahl. "It really comes down to just fundamental blocking. We've talked about this at length with that unit."
Preseason All-American kickoff returner Trevor Davis has not gotten the kinds of blockers he did last year, when he averaged 32.6 yards per return, and when the Bears averaged 22.5 yards per take back, with Davis averaging 19.8 on 13 returns. This season, Cal is averaging 18.44 yards per kickoff return.
"I would say this to you: It all ties together, it really does," says Tommerdahl. "Everybody has a responsibility, because, too often, we're giving our offense a long way to go. That's our job, is to give them less grass. You look at some of the mistakes that get made, when you talk about turnovers and stuff, that's going to happen when you force them to take as many plays as we're forcing them. We've got to get them better position."
The bigger field means a smaller margin for error for the offense, one which has turned the ball over nine times in the last three games.
"The turnover thing becomes a mathematical probability, when they have further to go," Tommerdahl says.
Oregon is 17th in the nation in punt return yardage (142 yards, 14.2 yards per return) and 8th in kickoff returns (1,012 yards, 26.63 average), while the Bears are 47th in the nation in net punting (38.29 yards), and 64th in net punting (21.23 yards).
"We'll be tested," Tommerdahl says. "It's just a really, really good league. Oregon has good returners. It's just another day in the Pac-12."
Bralon Addison is one such returner, who's 14.2 yards per return rank 10th in the nation. Charles Nelson is fifth in the nation with his 30.9 yards per kickoff return. Cal doesn't have those kinds of weapons, with Davis averaging 6.8 yards per punt return on four take-backs, and freshman Kanawai Noa taking two punts for no return yards. Khalfani Muhammad has a kick return average of 17.5 yards on two returns, while no other Bear has returned more than one kick.
A Dying Breed?
Cal will rotate punters situationally, with Cole Leininger being the flip-the-field big leg, with an average of 42.27 yards per boot, and Bears rugger Harry Adolphus. Adolphus. Adolphus has punted just twice (quarterback Jared Goff has punted five times for an average of 34.4, mostly in quick-kick, middle-of-the-field, fourth-down situations), but thanks to his rugby kicking style, he's averaging over 46 yards per punt.
"It's probably not as complicated as you want to make it sound, because we've got a talented guy," Tommerdahl says of Adolphus. "Harry's a talented guy. He's a tough guy. He plays rugby, and we're just trying to get another foot on the field.
Both Adolphus and Leininger have been working this week with cold buckets of water splashed onto their hands and feet in post-practice sessions with Tommerdahl, in preparation for what's expected to be a wet night on Saturday.
"As long as they're used to it, we're fine," says Tommerdahl. "We've seen evidence for it, that it can impact you if you're not prepared. I think it's not just psychological; you've got to be prepared. If we're prepared, we'll be fine."
As far as returning punts, that's become a bit more complicated as the years have gone on. The median number of punt return attempts among the top 10 punt return leaders over the past 11 years has dropped from 43.5 bak in 2004 to 28 in 2013. The top 10 punt returners this year have a median of 21 punt returns, with four games left. In 2012 and 2013, the median was 28, and last year, it was 32, down from a peak of 50.5 in 2007.
"It is a statistical fact that the average amount of punt returns per team in a college football game is 1.5," Tommerdahl says. "Everybody's kicking such bad balls. It's the way the game is going. All the rugby punters, it's really become a trend. It's harder to catch a returnable ball. [Big returns] are not a thing of the past, because you see one every week, but you see less and less of it."