It was the first year in a long time that UCLA didn't have a legitimate NFL prospect at place kicker, and the results showed. After Kip Smith went down with a leg injury, the Bruins had to cajole a reluctant walk on soccer manager in Tyler Gonzalez to take over the place kicking duties. Considering the circumstances, and that Gonzalez hadn't kicked a football in four years, he was excellent, hitting 7 of 11 field goals, and 21 of 22 extra points. Of course, given UCLA's fourth straight year of overall offensive anemia, the Bruins probably needed a kicker with a little more range on his leg.
Luckily, UCLA was able to uphold its other special tradition of having a stellar punter. Jeff Locke was, once again, exceptional as a punter, and very good at kickoffs. He tried his hand at place kicking immediately after Smith went down, and the results were mixed. He actually missed three of nine extra points. Reportedly, he wasn't opposed to Gonzalez taking over the duties halfway through the season, and the previous coaching staff was generally very sensitive to overtaxing Locke's leg.
The very slow-footed and un-shifty elephant in the special teams meeting room was the return game. In one of the seemingly clearest examples of the previous coaching staff's aversion to risk, Taylor Embree handled the punt return duties, and was, to put it mildly, unspectacular. He only returned 12 punts on the entire year, and averaged 4.8 yards per return. Unfortunately, no one showed the ability to catch punts consistently in practice for most of the year, and so the relatively sure-handed Embree was the only recourse. By the end of the year, Andrew Abbott and Jordon James were getting a few looks at punt returner, and in practice, James showed some good quickness and shiftiness, but his hands were still suspect. Abbott, for me, was the really interesting one. From the few reps he got at the end of the year, in practice, he looked to have Embree's hands with much better elusiveness. To play devil's advocate, the coaching staff may not have wanted to throw Abbott back at punt return given all the injuries in the secondary and the amount that Abbott was forced to play on defense.
In terms of kickoff return, Josh Smith did a decent enough job, but he never quite reached the heights that some expected to see after his time at Colorado. His 23 yard return average was respectable, but with his speed, many expected to see more touchdowns, or at least one. In practice, he tended to take kickoff return duties at about three quarters speed, which, to be fair, was the speed at which most of the team ran through practice. But the last great UCLA kickoff return guy, Matt Slater, always ran at top speed during practice, and if ever the adage about practicing how you play proved true, this would be the case.
A Look at Spring
UCLA enters the spring having to replace a few key cogs in the special teams arsenal. Josh Smith, Embree, and Gonzalez have all graduated, leaving Locke and long snapper Kevin McDermott as the stalwarts from the key specialist positions. It's safe to say that the returner positions will be wide open, but if we had to guess, we'd say that Damien Thigpen, who returns after being injured last year, James, and Abbott will all be in the mix to take hold of the roles. New Special Teams coach Jeff Ulbrich has said that catching the ball is going to be of paramount importance, naturally, at both return spots, but that he has a variety of drills he's going to put players through to get them better at catching.
Kicker will remain a question mark until August, when Ka'imi Fairbairn arrives on campus, but until that time, Locke will be handling the kicking duties. Joe Roberts is decent for a walkon, and from what Tracy and The One and Only Robert Kuwada reported, he actually was a bit better than Kip Smith prior to Smith's injury, and was within shouting distance of Gonzalez at times during the later part of the fall. Still, Locke's got a bigger leg, and is more accurate, despite his extra point adventures last season. Although Ulbrich says that he's most likely going to roll with Fairbairn in the fall so as not to overtax Locke, you have to suspect that some amount of time is going to be spent this spring seeing if Locke can shoulder (hip?) the entire kicking load himself.
What to Watch For
- Will Ulbrich be able to teach some of the dynamic players how to catch a punt? It's one of the more uncanny things about the former coaching staff that, despite having speedsters like Thigpen, Randall Carroll, and James, they were unable to teach any of them how to catch a punt. Either those players were simply not suited for the role, or the coaching staff did not do an effective job of teaching them. This spring may help to answer that conundrum, one way or another.
- Can Locke handle the entire kicking load? Last year, Locke was happy to have Gonzalez take over the kicking duties, but this year, there isn't a savior soccer manager waiting in the wings. Fairbairn may be ready to start kicking in the fall, or he might need a year of seasoning. Either way, Locke will get a chance in the spring to show whether or not he can handle the entire kicking load. He has the leg to do it all, but some of the pressure of place kicking seemed to get to him last year.
- What personnel will be playing special teams? Ulbrich, in much more polite terms, has said that given the depth of talent on the team, many of the best guys from offense and defense are going to have to play special teams. Johnathan Franklin and Derrick Coleman played big roles in return coverage last year, but largely it was second and third stringers. It'll be interesting to see whether Ulbrich and the coaching staff are comfortable using that many players.
Projected Depth Chart for Spring
1. Jeff Locke
2. Joe Roberts
1. Jeff Locke
2. Michael Leamy
1. Jordon James
2. Damien Thigpen
3. Andrew Abbott
1. Andrew Abbott
2. Jordon James
3. Damien Thigpen
1. Kevin McDermott
2. Christopher Longo
Spring Preview: Special Teams
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