We'll wrap up our unit previews with special teams...
Molson was on campus this spring, and he seemed to step in pretty seamlessly to the college game. He might not win the Lou Groza in his first year on campus, but, judging by what we saw this spring, he's also not going to replicate Ka'imi Fairbairn's extremely bumpy freshman season.
Kent was not on campus this spring, and UCLA's walk-on punters actually looked OK, but we're still anticipating Kent walking into the starting job this fall. When you spend scholarships on specialists, you don't do so to have them sit on the bench.
Long-snapping is one of those aspects of the game that's best when it goes completely unnoticed. Den Bleyker is the latest in a long line of high quality UCLA long snappers, and the hope is that he can continue UCLA's tradition of excellent snaps.
Starters and Depth
The three freshmen above should all start this year. Molson was significantly better than Andrew Strauch this spring, and we'd anticipate him winning the starting job in fall camp. For a freshman in his first camp this spring, he looked pretty darn good, with generally good consistency and strength on his kicks. Fairbairn was such a monster on kickoffs during his senior year that it's hard to expect a freshman who hasn't yet been through a full year of strength training to replicate his touchback percentage, but Molson looked better than average on his kick strength, so there's potential there for him to be a very good kickoff specialist as well.
Kent, like former punter Jeff Locke, is a lefty, and he was also highly rated by Chris Sailer and other kicking services. It's worth noting that it would be very hard for UCLA to be any worse at punting this year than it was last year, so Kent will likely be an upgrade from that standpoint alone. The early departure of Sean Covington interrupted UCLA's long string of high quality punters, but hopefully the arrival of Kent will stabilize that position for the next four years.
At long snapper, Den Bleyker takes over for Christopher Longo and, while we're not snapping experts, Den Bleyker looked pretty consistent when we've watched him in various kicking and snapping camps over the last year.
UCLA will almost certainly be starting three freshmen at those spots, and that will no doubt lead to some issues of inexperience at some point. Maybe a snap will go over Kent's head, and he'll try to pick it up instead of falling on it, or Molson might go through some yips at some point. Some of that is just what you have to expect with inexperience at those positions.
In the kick return game, we're very much anticipating Ishmael Adams retaining the starting kick and punt returner jobs. We're expecting him to return to sophomore year form, actually, since he'll probably be playing fewer snaps on offense than he played on defense, and that should leave him fresher for special teams. When he's not worn down, he's one of the better return men in the country.
Behind him, we'd anticipate Stephen Johnson getting a long look as Adams' backup. He is probably a bit faster than Adams, and is a bigger guy, which might keep him from suffering so much wear and tear. We're interested to see if his vision has improved over the last year, because if it has, he could be Adams' heir at returner.
Kick coverage was a problem last year, and, actually, UCLA's awful punting helped to disguise how many issues they had covering both punts and kicks last year. For most of the Mora era, that has been a strength, so it will be interesting to see if they can right the ship in that department this year. That's a hard thing to gauge in practice, and it might take until the first few games before we have some idea there.