In 2009, the Bears ranked 83rd nationally in punt coverage, and 58th nationally in kickoff coverage. In placekicking, the tandem of Giorgio Tavecchio and Vince D'Amato combined to go 5-for-13 in field goals outside of 30 yards. Even Bryan Anger's respectable 41.5 yards per punt was a disappointment given his outstanding 2008 campaign. Ultimately, special teams struggled with putting up points and winning the ever-so-crucial field position battle, and that prompted head coach Jeff Tedford to make a change.
Enter new special teams coordinator Jeff Genyk, who last was the head coach at Eastern Michigan in 2008. Genyk brings an entirely different mindset to special teams, focusing more on extra attention to detail and making the most of your opportunity. In camp, the kickers kicked less. But when they did, the pressure was on.
Case in point, at the end of one practice back in April, the offense and defense formed boxes at the hash marks, starting at the 10-yard line and making their way back into the end zone. Tavecchio and D'Amato then would have to kick off, maintain a certain hang-time, and get the ball to land in the box of players. If the ball landed in the box and stayed in the air long enough, the team was free from conditioning. If not, the number of planned gassers would double. In that one instance, Tavvechio's kick landed in the end zone, resulting in a wild celebration by the team.
Another instance featured field goals. Two weeks into camp, Tavecchio had to kick a 47-yard, all-or-nothing field goal. If good, no gassers were to be run. If not, the entire team would have to run a total of eight.
Tavecchio's kick sailed wide left, and the running began.
"He's either a hero or a goat, which is typical of the real thing," said Tedford.
And more simulations of "the real thing" in practice are just one instance for how Genyk believes he can turn special teams around.
"That puts a lot of pressure on you," said Tavecchio. "The more you find yourself in those situations, the better you react and you learn how to deal with it."
Heading into fall camp, the competition at placekicker was one of the more intriguing storylines, with junior Giorgio Tavecchio, sophomore Vince D'Amato, and junior David Seawright all having in-game experience, and touted freshman Jed Barnett being given opportunities in practice.
Tavecchio, who has made 17-of-25 career field goals, fared the best of the bunch. His consistency through fall camp earned him the leg up (pun intended) in both field goals and kickoffs, such that Jeff Tedford now sounds fully confident in Tavecchio getting the job done. Tavecchio does have experience kicking under pressure, most notably when he made the game-winning field goal at Arizona State last October.
Backing Tavecchio up will be D'Amato, who made 7-of-12 field goals with a long of 47 yards in 2009. David Seawright, who is 5-for-7 in his career, will also be on the roster.
Freshman Jed Barnett looked very impressive in his first fall camp and, down the road, he may be the guy who handles all placekicking and punting duties in the future.
Barnett has a very strong leg, and it became clear that he could be a reliable asset. Even with Tavecchio, D'Amato, and Seawright all returning, there is a chance Tedford might not redshirt Barnett, given that his leg may come in handy for kickoffs. Late in camp, Tedford said that Barnett was starting to push Tavecchio on kickoffs, hinting that -- with a year of college weight lifting and conditioning – Barnett could be the best kicker down the road.
At punter, the competition was fairly predictable. In 2008, junior Bryan Anger averaged 43.1 yards per punt with a long of 72, earning Freshman All-American honors. In 2009, Anger's 41.5 yards per punt was good enough to earn first team All-Pac 10, but his inconsistencies became more noticeable, and left many Cal fans wondering why he suffered some regression.
At least through fall camp, Genyk's emphasis on detail looks to be paying off, as Anger looks more like his 2008 self. During the moments in camp when the media saw him punt, the ball was again consistently traveling 50 yards through the air with plenty of hang-time. For a team that will rely on a power running game with no proven 'take-it-to-the-house' players, field position becomes extremely important. If Anger can regain his form and kick to his potential in games, the Bears will receive a tremendous boost by winning the battle of field position.
Just like the coverage units providing a boost to the defense, the return units are essential for establishing field position for the offense.
In 2009, Sofele returned 12 kicks for an average of 20.7 yards, including a 65-yard return at Washington. There is no doubt about his game-changing speed and his ability to score at any time, and that easily transitions well to kickoff returns. Senior Chris Conte will be with Sofele on returns, but do not be surprised if one of the young freshmen – particularly wide receiver Kaelin Clay – gets a look on kickoff returns, as well.
Senior Jeremy Ross is back to return punts, where he is listed by some as an All-Pac-10 candidate. In 2009, Ross returned nine punts for 192 yards, including a 76-yard touchdown scamper against Washington State. There is little to no doubt about Ross' athleticism – just think back to him hurdling players the past couple of years. If Ross can get positive yards, it should provide great help for the offense.
For any football team, winning the battle of field position is extremely important, and is easily a deciding factor in determining the outcome.
For the Cal Bears, who will rely on a steady power running game and with no proven speed burners, the issue of field position will only be magnified. If kickoff coverage can improve and if Bryan Anger can successfully go back to his 2008 form, the Bears will get a significant boost in field position, and put themselves in position to win many more games.
With better field position, defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast can only unleash his blitz schemes and create more turnovers. With better field position, a shorter field for the offense always means an increase in scoring chances.
Ultimately, special teams will say a big part in how far the Cal Bears go in 2010.
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