UCLA Special Teams Review
This is going to be shorter than our other reviews because there simply wasn't a whole lot to go on this spring in terms of the kicking game.
First, only one of the triumvirate of freshmen likely to start at long-snapper, kicker, and punter was even in camp this spring, the likely starting kicker J.J. Molson.
Second, it's almost always impossible to really judge the return game, and kick return coverage, in practice since everything is at about 3/4 speed with no contact.
That said, we did get a long look at Molson, and he's a very promising kicking prospect. It looked like it took him a little while to get used to the college feel, but once he hit about the third week, he was very good. He actually fought through some food poisoning over the last couple of weeks and didn't miss a practice, and it's always nice to see that sort of toughness out of a kicker. At the very worst, he's at least as good as Ka'imi Fairbairn was as a freshman, and he actually looks a good bit better than Fairbairn did in his first fall camp as a Bruin.
It's harder to judge kickoffs, because UCLA didn't do a whole lot of live kickoffs in spring ball, and judging depth is difficult from where we stand. He has a big leg, and it did appear he put most of his kick-offs in the back of the endzone, but it's hard to imagine him crushing touchbacks as often as Fairbairn did as a senior. That'll make it more important for UCLA's kick return coverage to step up from its abysmal showing last season.
At punter and long-snapper, UCLA used a variety of walk-ons, and while no one was noticeably bad (in fact, the walk-on punters look like they'd be an improvement on UCLA's punting game from last year), punter Austin Kent and long-snapper Johnny Den Bleyker are probably both going to start this season -- you don't give scholarships to specialists to have them sit on the bench.
One thing to note: Doing the longsnapping in spring was walk-on linebacker Willie Green, and he did a passable job. But when Den Bleyker arrives, there's going to be a bit of an adjustment, with Den Bleyker's snaps being quicker and harder. It will be an adjustment for the holder in being able to handle Den Bleyker's stronger snaps, bu also in timing for the holder and kicker.
In the return game, it looks like Ishmael Adams will once again be the starting punt and kick returner, with Stephen Johnson looking like his heir apparent and understudy. Judging by the way Adams looked on offense this spring, he appears to have some of his playmaking mojo back. If he can be the same returner he was as a sophomore this coming season, that would be absolutely huge for the Bruins.
Replacing a Lou Groza award winner isn't easy, but Molson should be a quality freshman kicker for the Bruins. If UCLA can get anything substantial out of its own return game, and can do a better job covering kicks than a year ago, the Bruins should see some overall improvement on special teams.
Projected Fall Depth Chart
LS: Den Bleyker
KR: Adams, Johnson
PR: Adams, Johnson