It was an up and down 2012 for UCLA's special teams. At various points throughout the year, you had kickers missing multiple extra points, seemingly no one on the team who could catch a punt, and a kickoff return squad so bad that we thought it might be a good idea for UCLA to take a knee every time the ball had a chance of going into the end zone.
On second thought, maybe it was just a down year.
Jeff Locke was once again the MVP of the unit, taking his game to a new level in his senior season. He improved his ability to pin teams down within their own 10 yard line to the point where the coaching staff was confident enough to even have him punt from the opponents' 40 (however bad that decision always is). If UCLA had simply an average punter, rather than Locke, one or two wins might have swung the other way.
Damien Thigpen had seemingly nailed down the starting kickoff returner spot before going down with an ACL tear in November. After that, kickoffs were an adventure, with various players getting the opportunity to try returning and none looking very good. Punt returning was equally difficult, with Steven Manfro having frequent issues fielding punts at the beginning of the year. UCLA did finally find a decent combination with Randall Goforth and Shaquelle Evans toward the end of the year, but that's going to be a huge area for improvement next season.
Return coverage was decent on both punts and kickoffs, but return blocking was far from it. One of the more significant issues with UCLA's inability to return a kickoff for any appreciable amount of yards was the abysmal blocking up front. There will almost certainly need to be an overhaul of the blocking schemes, because too often UCLA's returners were hit 10 yards out of the end zone.
A Look at Spring
This is going to become common refrain in these previews, but it's going to be difficult to determine much from spring. Locke has graduated, but his replacement, Sean Covington, won't yet be in school in April, which means that we won't get a look at how much of a dropoff there will be. At kick and punt return, Damien Thigpen will still be out with his ACL injury, which means that we won't see likely the most dynamic player on the team returning at either spot.
However, there is much that can be gleaned. With a year under his belt, and a back half of the season that almost surely built his confidence, it'll be interesting to see how Fairbairn develops this spring. Last season, Coach Mora managed Fairbairn very well, putting him in a position to succeed after the disastrous start to the season, and Fairbairn looked increasingly confident as the season wore on. If he can add some consistent range to his leg this spring, he could take a significant leap by next season.
And then, at returner, even with Thigpen out, there are a half dozen candidates who could step in and seize the starting spot. For once, there isn't a shortage of speed on UCLA's roster.
What to Watch For
- Can Kenny Walker show better vision at either return spot? Walker has the physical tools to be just as dynamic as Thigpen at either return spot, but showed poor vision last season. Much of that can be chalked up to being a freshman and not being used to the speed of the game. In spring, the team will very, very rarely go anywhere close to live in special teams drills, so it won't be easy to tell if the game starts to slow down for him there. Instead, pay attention to how he looks at running back and at the F—if he looks like he's starting to make guys miss at those two spots, then it's a good bet that he'll be able to do the same on returns.
- Will Fairbairn add another 10 yards to his range? Last season, Fairbairn was nails from 35 yards and in, and was a crapshoot from anywhere further out. While you'd almost wish for him not to show it, so that it doesn't become a crutch for the coaching staff, it's very important that he expands his range to about 45 yards. If he can do that, UCLA's offense can become nearly automatic within 30 yards, and certain red zone issues from the beginning of last season will diminish.
- If not Walker, who? There are plenty of kickoff return options on the team, but many of them have already been tried. Devin Fuller is likely getting another shot at quarterback this spring, so it's doubtful that he'll be in the mix at returner. Jordon James has never shown natural catching ability on punts or kickoffs, and given his confidence issues toward the end of the season at running back, it's a safe bet that the coaches are just going to try to get him ready for that spot. Steven Manfro has had some issues at both punt returner and kick returner, but you'd have to guess he'll get another look with a season under his belt. Roosevelt Davis and Ahmaad Harris are relatively unknown quantities, but both could also factor into the competition.
Projected Depth Chart for Spring
1. Ka'imi Fairbairn
2. Justin Moreno
1. Justin Moreno
1. Kenny Walker
2. Steven Manfro
3. Roosevelt Davis
1. Shaquelle Evans
2. Randall Goforth
3. Kenny Walker
1. Christopher Longo
Spring Preview: Special Teams
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