Spring Review: Special Teams

UCLA has a chance for a good return game, based off spring practice, and it looks like Jeff Locke is poised for another superb season...

The sun rises, the sun sets, and Jeff Locke punts the ball 50+ yards with great hang time. This spring, Locke seemed to actually add more strength to his already powerful leg. Michael Leamy, the back up punter, might be a serviceable punter some day, but in practice it was interesting to watch- actually, to hear- the difference between the two punters. When Leamy punts, the ball makes a muffled thump sound as it leaves his foot, traveling 40 yards or so. When Locke punts, the ball sounds like it was propelled by gunpowder.

But we all knew Locke was a stud, and the fact that he became slightly more so over the spring shouldn't be much of a surprise. The big shocker out of spring practice was this: the specialists actually worked during practice. It's no secret that during previous eras, the specialists would mostly hang out on the sideline during practice, talking or having informal kicking contests. This spring was different. Led by long snapper Kevin McDermott and Locke, the specialists spent whatever time they weren't actively working on the kicking game working on their bodies. It seemed like every practice, they'd be doing workouts similar to what the injured players were doing: medicine ball situps, and a lot of other core work. Who knows what kind of effect it will have, if it'll let Locke kick a yard farther or McDermott snap a little more accurately, but if you were looking for an example of culture change, you didn't have to look too far beyond the black shirts.

We know Locke will man the punt and kickoff roles, and we know that McDermott will be the long snapper. But after those two, the depth chart gets a bit trickier. Joe Roberts handled the vast majority of field goals during spring ball and was really inconsistent, even inside of 40 yards. It's not as if he doesn't have a leg- when he gets into one, he could probably hit from 50. It's just that his swing is not consistent, and he has a tendency to just hit the ball very wrong, causing low, knuckling kicks, and other wide variance. It's probably much too much to expect him to improve enough by the fall to provide much competition for Ka'imi Fairbairn when he arrives for August practice. If Fairbairn isn't ready, then the kicking game could be in more trouble than it was last year, when Rick Neuheisel had to turn to a soccer manager to kick field goals.

At the two return spots, for once, UCLA seems like it has a few good options, and what's more, it seems like the coaching staff is actually giving play makers a real shot to steal the jobs. At kick return, the two top returners looked like Jordon James and Steven Manfro, and that was born out in the spring game. James didn't flub a single kickoff that I saw in 14 spring practices, and so of course, the first kickoff he handled in warmups before the spring game he muffed. He does look much more comfortable handling kickoffs than punts, although he, at times, has an awkward over hand catching style on the more line-drive type kicks. Still, he fielded most balls cleanly during spring, and looked electric in the open field.

Manfro is another excellent possibility. He fields the ball much more consistently, and with cleaner technique, than James, and has probably equal shiftiness, but doesn't quite have the top gear that James has. His return in the spring game was a thing of beauty, though, and he has excellent open field vision. It's going to be a fun battle between these two to see which can handle the return duties, but one thing is very clear: there will be a legitimate playmaker on kick returns.

The punt return situation is a little less cut and dry. No fewer than eight players got long looks at punt return during the spring, including Shaquelle Evans, Jerry Johnson, Devin Lucien, Manfro, James, Johnathan Franklin, Melvin Emesibe, and Andrew Abbott, among others. Of the eight, it seemed that Evans, Manfro, and James emerged as the primary three options. Right now, just judging by reps in practice, Evans might have the inside edge, because he has an uncanny ability to not only field the ball cleanly, but field it cleanly in traffic. While that might give you nightmares of Taylor Embree, Evans is faster, and has more shake, than Embree. That's not to say Manfro or James couldn't take the job. Right now, this is probably the most wide open of any of the special teams positions, simply given the number of people who've gotten reps. Jeff Ulbrich doesn't expect to make a call on who'll be handling punt return until well in fall camp, so there's going to be a good amount of time for Manfro or James to shore up their catching skills.

It's fun to watch the coaching staff during special teams practice. Coach Mora makes it a priority, and he, Ulbrich, Eric Yarber, and Marques Tuiasosopo all work together on the special teams, generally with Ulbrich and Mora coaching around the line of scrimmage, Tuiasosopo helping with kick return blocking, and Yarber standing in the ear of the return men. After years of the return game being the ginger of the UCLA football family, it's good to see it being welcomed back into the fold.

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