UCLA Fall Camp Preview: Special Teams

Aug. 6 -- UCLA returns its kicker, punter, and returner from last season...

Special teams has been a strength for Jim Mora during his three years at UCLA. Even last year, when the Bruins lost their punter before the season and had to pivot to a JC punter, UCLA still was generally pretty good in terms of special teams coverage. Some of that was Matt Mengel not being able to punt the ball very far, but generally, UCLA did a good job on kick and punt return coverage, and on the flip side, did a better job returning kicks and returning punts. Generally with special teams, you want to see a net positive when analyzing yards given up vs. yards gained on kicks, and UCLA took care of that.

The place-kicking game was closer to mediocre, though. It was Ka'imi Fairbairn's junior season, and by and large, he still looks pretty similar to the kicker he was as a true freshman. He missed some pretty makable kicks, and hasn't shown the ability to consistently hit from 40+ yards, missing three of seven opportunities from 40+. UCLA fans have certainly gotten spoiled with great kickers over the year, which has made it even more noticeable that Fairbairn isn't at that level. His kickoffs were pretty good, though, which is an unheralded but important part of the job.

Ishmael Adams spent most of the year as the kick and punt returner and, for the most part, he was very good yet again. He took one kickoff return back for a touchdown and was close to breaking several more. Toward the end of the year, he seemed to wear down a little bit, and it seemed like it started to frustrate him that teams started to kick away from him. Still, he's a weapon in the return game, and is a threat to break one virtually every time he touches the ball.

Incoming Freshmen

WR/CB Stephen Johnson

We're just speculating here, but we think there's a pretty good chance Johnson gets a look in the return game, either this fall or during the following season. He has speed that few possess and is built stoutly enough that he can probably hold up physically to the rigors of being a returner. We'd be a little surprised, actually, if he doesn't practice with the returners at least at some point this fall.

Starters



Kai'mi Fairbairn will again be the starting placekicker and kickoff specialist. It's a little odd to consider that this will be his senior year -- he was one of the members of Jim Mora's first class at UCLA in 2012. Fairbairn, as we talked about above, hasn't risen to that elite level that many UCLA kickers have gotten to in the past. He has gotten to the point that he's fairly automatic on kicks inside the 40, so there's that, but everything outside of 40 yards can be an adventure. He's had 65 kicks in his UCLA career and made 48 of them.

Matt Mengel had a pretty average year in 2014. The former JC punter average 40 yards per punt, and rarely out kicked his coverage. Sean Covington was poised to be a weapon in 2014, though, and Mengel probably didn't come close to what Covington would have been last season. Still, assuming some improvement, he should be a decent enough punter in 2015.

We'd anticipate Adams reprising his role as the main returner on both punts and kicks. Now that he's playing primarily nickel on defense, he should be on the field a little bit less on defense, which will help him deal with the wear and tear of the season a little bit better. He has great open field vision, accelerates really well, and is much tougher than you'd think given his dimensions. With fewer snaps on defense to deal with, he could have a truly great year returning kicks.

Depth

Randall Goforth returns from his shoulder injury and, at times over the last two years, he, too, has shown considerable ability as a return man. He has a lot of the same qualities as Adams, just in a slightly less compact, slightly less durable frame. It'll be interesting to see if UCLA even throws him into the mix at returner this fall considering he's coming off of a season-ending shoulder injury.

Craig Lee is an intriguing option, especially at kickoff return. He is, if not the fastest, certainly among the fastest players on the team, and it would be interesting to see what he can do with the ball in his hands and room to run. If he's not projected to be in the main running back rotation, returning kickoffs would be a great way to get his speed on the field.

Myles Jack actually returned the occasional kick during spring practice, and it was a lot of fun seeing him do it. We'd have a little trepidation using him in that way, though, given the risk of injury and how many demands are already placed on him both on defense and on offense. Still, if you're scoring at home, count returning kicks as another thing Jack can do at a pretty elite level.


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