Spring Review: Special Teams

UCLA has no punter currently on roster, no real long snapper, and the return game is in flux. At the very least, though, UCLA's field goal kicking should be improved...

Replacing Jeff Locke is not going to be an enviable task for the UCLA coaching staff. When considering the special nature of the position, and how much better Locke was than the average punter, it might actually be a more difficult task than replacing Johnathan Franklin. Locke was special, and his ability to both punt exceptionally well and rack up touchbacks on kickoffs is probably not something UCLA will enjoy this year.

This spring helped to underscore Locke's importance. During special teams practice, UCLA had to turn to the Jugs machine more often than not to simulate punting, since UCLA's walk-on punters were unable to kick the ball consistently. At various points, Kenny Walker and Philip Ruhl also handled punting duties, and neither looked like they had an exceptional level of talent kicking the ball. It's obvious that UCLA will have to wait until Sean Covington arrives in August before the Bruins will figure out what kind of punter they will have this year.

As if that weren't enough, UCLA also had to replace its long snapper this season, with the always-reliable Kevin McDermott graduating. Various players got chances at long snapping, including Darius Bell, Conor McDermott, and walk-on Peter Hajimihalis. Again, none were particularly impressive, and it appears likely that UCLA will turn to incoming walk-on long snapper Reed Buce or returning walk-on Christopher Longo, who was recovering from ACL surgery this spring.

To top it all off, both kick return spots remain in flux with Damien Thigpen still out while recovering from ACL surgery. Again, we think that Randall Goforth has shown a good deal of ability as a punt returner, but both he and Shaquelle Evans got work there. At kick returner, a cast of thousands participated, including, but not limited to, Jordon James, Steve Manfro, Paul Perkins, Fabian Moreau, Devin Fuller, and Evans. Moreau looked the most impressive this spring, but that battle is a long way from over.

Who Rose:

Ka'imi Fairbairn SO: A year removed from an up and down season that was capped with a missed 52 yarder from the left hash against Stanford in the Pac-12 Championship game, Fairbairn enjoyed a spring in which he showed development in all aspects of the kicking game. He clearly added some strength to his already strong leg, and consistently hit 40+ yarders in practice. He also handled kickoffs at times, to get a feel for it in case Covington needs to be solely focused on punting. After last year, where Jim Mora handled Fairbairn very well for most of the year by limiting him to mostly field goals within 35 yards, our guess is that Fairbairn's range gets pushed to 45 yards or so.

Fabian Moreau SO: Moreau may or may not make an impact at corner this year, but one area we could see him doing some damage is at kick returner. Although no kickoff or punt return drills are live, Moreau flashed a good burst as well as nice vision during the kickoff periods this spring. If he doesn't play much at corner (especially if he doesn't play much at corner), we could see him winning the kick return job prior to Thigpen's return.

Who Fell:

Everyone who tried to punt: Seriously, it was ugly. None of the kickers can punt very well, with walk-on Justin Moreno probably the best—and he had a punt that traveled a total of 12 yards through the air this spring. Walker and Ruhl, who tried to punt, also didn't have much luck. If Covington isn't ready in the fall, this could be a huge area of concern.

Where Things Project:

There were a few complaints about UCLA's coaching last year. The major one was the preparation for a few of the games (Cal, first Stanford, and Baylor chief among them). One minor one was the use of special teams. At times, the coaching staff appeared to fall on the conservative side of things as far as choosing to punt on 4th down. Too often, UCLA elected to punt on 4th and pretty short on the opponents' side of the field—almost invariably a poor strategic decision. With advanced stats more readily accessible than ever before, those kinds of decisions become less and less understandable.

In a sense, then, perhaps it'll be good that UCLA no longer has a crutch in Jeff Locke. Now that he's gone, along with his ability to put punts in the coffin corner, the coaches may be less inclined to punt from within the 45 yard line. If Covington is a typical freshman punter, we could easily see UCLA trying to manage his usage in much the same way as the coaches managed Fairbairn last year. Depending on how UCLA adjusts to the loss of Locke, losing him could end up a net gain for the team.

The other significant issue was the use of kick returners, and the kick return game in general. After Thigpen went down, UCLA no longer had a credible kick returner, but more to the point, even before Thigpen went down, kick return blocking was relatively poor. Couple that with UCLA lacking a truly dynamic returner after Thigpen's injury, and the decision to return kicks out of the end zone became questionable. With the new kickoff rules, you could make an argument that unless you have good blocking, a good return man, AND a short kick, it's almost always smart to just take the ball at the 25.

It's difficult to say how improved the blocking will be, considering there aren't any full live kickoff periods in practice. This will be one of the more interesting things to watch once the season begins.

Best Guess Depth Chart for Nevada

Kick Returner
Fabian Moreau SO
Jordon James RS JR

Punt Returner
Randall Goforth SO
Shaquelle Evans RS SR

Kicker
Ka'imi Fairbairn SO

Punter
Sean Covington FR

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