There's a lot more new than familiar when it comes to USC's special teams this fall. Gone are punter Kris Albarado, placekicker Alex Wood and holder Conner Sullivan for starters with return specialist Adoree' Jackson saying he might limit himself to punt returns, passing on kickoffs.
But special teams guru John Baxter, after a two-year absence including a year at Michigan, is back. So there's that. A good place to start. And it's not that the cupboard is bare, just untested. USC has made the scholarship investment here. One of those has been senior snapper and former walkon Zach Smith a couple of seasons back, whose work has been perfect his career here. So that's a good place to start.
As was the case with so much of USC's play last season, Trojan special teams had their moments -- good and bad. For the third year in a row, USC returned two punts for TDs. But there were two USC punts blocked and one returned for a TD. USC also finished in the bottom 25 in kickoff returns, net punting and punt return defense while getting just 11 touchbacks on 87 kickoffs. But for the third straight season, USC did manage 13 field goals.
Into this picture walks Baxter, whose four years at USC (2010-13) saw the Trojans, as noted in the media guide, block 24 kicks and punts, scored on eight kick and punt returns, including an NCAA record three punt runback TDs in a game. In addition, USC scored 10 two-point conversions although that punt-kick option did not generate a great deal of fan support but the first down runs on occasional fake kicks and punts were popular as heck. Under his tutelage, Andre Heidari was a freshman All-American kicker and Soma Vainuku an All-Pac-12 special teams performer.
Clay's comments: We are fortunate that John came back to coach our special teams. He is one of the most respected special teams coordinators in the game. His trademark is impactful, creative special teams play. John’s ability to teach and develop skills will be especially important for us this year after losing our punter and kicker. It will be very important for us to establish an identity and consistency at both spots and I expect that the battle to do so will be very competitive. And, while our return game brings back some dynamic players, we will continue to seek players who can help us in this area.”
The pick to succeed three-year starter Albarado is Australian Chris Tilbey, the rangy (6-5, 205) Melbourne native and Aussie Rules Football veteran by way of San Francisco CC who was scholarshipped his redshirt season in 2015. Like Albarado, whose career punting average was 39.6 (41.0 in 2015), with 58 punts pinning opponents inside the 20-yard line, the redshirt sophomore Tilbey is not a Tom Malone-type boomer. Kicking away from return men and getting a bounce and the roll after running to a spot while his cover men get up the field is his specialty.
He'll be contested by a pair of sophomores -- lefty walkon Reid Budrovich from St. John Bosco and sophomore placekicker Wyatt Schmidt, a hockey guy from Minnesota.
With Wood graduated, USC must replace a kicker who hit all 13 of his field goal attempts in 2015 but managed just 24 touchbacks n 113 career kickoffs. At the head of the line is live-legged but not always down-the-middle lefty junior Matt Boermeester out of San Diego who hit on all four PAT in 2015. Boermeester's dad was a top kicker in college at UCLA while Matt himself has a tri-colored history unique in college scholarship memory. He was a greyshirt coming out of high school, sitting out a semester, then he was awarded a blueshirt scholarship in 2014 at USC before sitting that season out as a redshirt behind Wood. Now after handling kicking duties the final four games for USC, he's ready to step in. But he won't go unchallenged.
Sophomore Schmidt, also a punter, will challenge here. And then there's the sleeper, incoming blueshirt freshman Michael Brown, from Temecula's Linfield Christian, has a strong leg and an impressive resume including a 57-yard field goal in high school and 62 of 68 kickoffs into the end zone. "One of the strongest legs in the nation," is the five-star's evaluation from the Chris Sailor Kicking Academy. The 6-2 Brown also played safety and punted, averaging 41.7 yards.
The senior Smith (6-2, 220) from Redwood City is back for his fourth season in a career that the USC media guide describes correctly as "flawless." He's on the money and on time every time. Can't ask for any more than what the former walkon has given the Trojans.
Giving the Trojans a second snapper is blind walk-on redshirt freshman Jake Olson (6-4, 210), whose story is well-known from his days as a devoted young USC fan before surgeries to remove his eyes due to retinoblastoma (retinal cancer). The 2016 Uplifting Athletes Rare Disease Champions Award winner from Huntington Beach snapped at Orange Lutheran for two seasons and while he's kept from contact during USC practices, the goal is for him to snap in a game.
Both holders are gone with the graduation of quarterbacks Conner Sullivan and backup Cody Kessler, who handled the duties the past three seasons (Sullivan in 2014-2015 and Kessler in 2013). Should Sam Darnold not win the QB battle, he'll get the first look. With Matt Fink likely redshirting, this could be wide open in August.
Here's where USC has it going with all three return guys back, although maybe with a twist. Primary punt and kickoff return man Jackson said at Pac-12 Media Days that he might be limiting his kickoff returns this season after 24 punt returns for 251 yards (a 10.5 average) and two TD in 2015. And that would be a big chunk as Adoree' had 30 kickoff returns in 2015 for 690 yards (23.0 average), moving him up to fourth on USC's career kickoff return list with 1,374 yards and two TD.
Tailback Justin Davis, with 11 kickoff returns for 211 yards (a 19.2 avg in 2015) and wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster,with four kickoff returns for 51 yards (12.8 average) are the prime candidates to pick up Adoree's slack from USC's regular lineup but don't be surprised if sophomore Dominic Davis and freshman Jack Jones get a serious look here.
Matt Boermeester, Jr., PK
Reid Budrovich, So., P
Jake Olson, RFr., SNP
Wyatt Schmidt, So., PK
ZACH SMITH, Sr., SNP
Chris Tilbey, So., P
Third in a series of USC 2016 team previews: Next, the coaches.
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