By and large, though, the unit outperformed expectations, with many of the positives coming from drastically improved kick coverage and return blocking. Sean Covington, the freshman punter, also outperformed reasonable expectations, and if you were grading on a curve, you'd have to say he had an excellent first year for a freshman. You would even say that by the end of the year, UCLA had a dynamic kick returner as well in Ishmael Adams, who, over the last few games, looked like UCLA's best kick and punt returner since Maurice Drew was in a Bruins' uniform.
Though Fairbairn was much the same as he was his freshman year, the other aspects of the unit were so improved that it helped to mitigate the lack of a completely reliable kicker. Heading into the spring, with so many key contributors on special teams having been freshmen, it's easy to assume that the unit should continue to improve through the 2014 season and beyond.
A Look at Spring
With Jeff Ulbrich moving on to defensive coordinator, the responsibility for coordinating special teams will shift to new linebackers coach Mike Tuiasosopo. Even when Ulbrich was coordinating last year, though, virtually every coach had a hand in coaching special teams, with Eric Yarber helping the returners, Angus McClure helping with the blocking, and so forth. We'd expect a similar approach this year, and we'd be shocked if the scheme and approach to special teams changed significantly.
It'll be difficult to determine much about the coverage units in spring, since the team will very rarely go full contact, and will almost certainly never go full contact in special teams practice. Probably the most interesting thing to watch during spring will be Fairbairn, and whether he can improve on his sophomore campaign. The third year is where the light can turn on for placekickers, so it'll be interesting (and significant) if Fairbairn shows that he's starting to make a leap.
What to Watch For
- Will Fairbairn be able to hit consistently from 40+ yards? The sophomore kicker has been generally reliable from 35 yards and in throughout his career, but he's been erratic beyond that distance. This season, where UCLA is likely to play several high-stakes games against Oregon, Texas, Stanford, USC, and others (even, potentially, a playoff game), turning Fairbairn into a reliable weapon from 45 yards and in could be very significant. He's shown a strong leg in practice at times, but he just hasn't shown the requisite consistency you'd like. Putting together a good spring will be a big step for him.
- How much will Tuiasosopo do with special teams? As we said above, virtually every coach has a hand in special teams, and it'll be interesting to see what part of the coordination Tuiasosopo takes over, particularly given that he'll have responsibility for outside linebacker coaching as well. It'll also be interesting to see if he wants to switch anything up in terms of kick/punt returners and gunners.
- Can Covington turn into the next great UCLA punter? Covington had a good first year, and showed he had the potential to be another great UCLA specialist. With how good Jayon Brown, Cameron Judge, and others were on coverage last year, if Covington can turn into a guy that consistently punts the ball 45+ yards with good hang time, UCLA's net punt coverage could be one of the best in the country.
Projected Depth Chart for Spring
1. Ka'imi Fairbairn
2. Mitch Johnson
1. Sean Covington
2. Adam Searl
1. Ishmael Adams
2. Devin Fuller
3. Steven Manfro
1. Ishmael Adams
2. Randall Goforth
3. Kenny Walker
1. Christopher Longo
2. Reed Buce