Who would have thought say, three years ago, that Ka'imi Fairbairn would turn into a Lou Groza award winner? Heck, who would have thought it at the beginning of last year?
Fairbairn turned into a very reliable, very good kicker his senior season, and it goes to show that kicking is a weird, weird science and it's tough to project how any kicker is going to turn out.
Now, Fairbairn is gone, as are UCLA's punter Matt Mengel and UCLA's long snapper Christopher Longo. Mengel didn't have a very good senior season, but as a stop-gap measure after the unexpected loss of Sean Covington in 2014, Mengel was serviceable. Fans and observers never noticed Longo, which is about what you want from a long-snapper, so he'll likely be missed as well.
A big thing to figure out this spring, though, is actually who'll be returning kicks and punts. Last season, a variety of players took turns, including Ishmael Adams, Devin Fuller, Randall Goforth, and Stephen Johnson, among others. Adams, after looking very good as a return man in 2014, wasn't nearly as effective last year, which should make this an open competition this spring.
A Look at Spring
Among the specialists, the only one in school at the moment is J.J. Molson, with Austin Kent and Johnny Den Bleyker both scheduled to come in this June. Molson has been in school since January, and has already gotten bigger and stronger, though how much bigger and stronger a kicker needs to be is open for debate.
That said, Molson is a big key for this season, and the next four years. If he's able to translate his lofty rankings into immediate production this season, that's going to be huge. He showed a big leg in high school, and given the issues UCLA had in kickoff coverage last year, his being able to consistently boot the ball into the back of the end zone would be a big bonus. Since it's such a mental thing, how long it takes a kicker to get used to kicking in college can vary drastically. For someone like Fairbairn, it took the better part of three years. For Molson, that process could be much shorter, but it's difficult to say.
So, UCLA will have to wait on its punter and long-snapper until the fall, but there will likely be assorted walk-ons who fill in at both, and we wouldn't rule out Kenny Walker giving punting another shot.
The return game should be interesting. With Adams moving to offense, we'd have to guess he'll be on the field a bit less than he was on defense, and that could free him up to focus more on the return game. He seemed to wear down physically at the end of each of the last two seasons, so a fresher Adams could return to his form from 2014 in the return game.
We'd also like to see Stephen Johnson get a long look. He's one of the most explosive players on the team, and he has the physicality to do both punt returning and kick returning if need be. Theo Howard probably makes sense as a punt returner, and it'll be interesting to see if he works in with the punt returners to start out camp.
UCLA usually rotates at least a half dozen players at the return spots during practice, and it's always interesting to see who ends up in the group. For the last couple of years, Myles Jack has even worked with the returners, so maybe that'll be in Mique Juarez's future? In any case, it should be fun to see what happens.
Projected Post-Spring Depth Chart
Punter: (Austin Kent arriving in June)
Long-Snapper: (Johnny Den Bleyker arriving in June)
Kicker: J.J. Molson
Kick Returner: Ishmael Adams, Stephen Johnson
Punt Returner: Ishmael Adams, Stephen Johnson