Special Teams Questions Dawg UW

Probably one of the most improved parts of the Husky team last season was the overall play of their special teams. However, with the graduation of all nearly all their specialists, it now becomes the biggest question mark of any of the three phases of the game.

Not only did they lose Brendan Lopez, their long snapper for both punts and field goals, they also lost their starting kicker, Erik Folk and his back up - Eric Guttorp - and two punters who both were starters at one time or another - Kiel Rasp and Will Mahan. That's basically everybody! Replacing these specialists will be of primary importance to kicking game coordinator Johnny Nansen.

They did sign a punter, a kicker, and a snapper, but it doesn't appear any of these incoming signees will be here for spring. That presents a problem from the coordination and timing standpoints. In both punting and field goal kicking, timing is the single most important thing to avoid blocks and especially with the relationship between snapper and punter or snapper and holder.

Years ago, coach James personally carried a stopwatch for every practice and every pre-game. He literally timed every snap and get-off to ensure they were within the allowable ticks.

As good as Folk was (and he was perfect in his extra points - 57 of 57), he missed critical field goals coming down the stretch against Oregon State (which would have tied the game at the time), WSU (which kept the game closer than it should have been), and against Baylor (another miss at a key time). Folk was only 11 of 16 in his field goal attempts on the year and Washington also had a fake punt run against them in the USC game that blew that game wide open.

As good as Rasp was (he set the school record with a 45.6 average) he too, suffered two blocks. Those kinds of mistakes need to be eliminated if the Huskies are going to be a championship contender. Remember, you don't have to always win the kicking game, but you just can't hand it over either. Sometimes when either your offense or defense isn't clicking it is the kicking game that gives you the winning edge. I can remember one time we beat the Ducks when our offense didn't get a first down in the first half, yet we were still ahead.

The emphasis and concentration that coaches Sarkisian and Nansen have put into the team aspects of special teams was noticeably improved from both the protection and coverage standpoints. This was obviously a reflection of their increase in emphasis but also of the increase in running athletes added to the team over the past two recruiting classes. There are simply more rangy and good running athletes on the roster, and it showed in their ability to play in space.

Greg Walker's decision to enter medical school will leave a significant hole in special teams but there are many young players waiting to try and fill his shoes, particularly at the safety position - where there are at least eight kids who could fit the bill. There will be no shortage of speed but there could be in experience, and that will be Nansen's primary objective; to find Walker-type special teams players.

They are still solid at the holder position and kick returners, and the Huskies actually have two lettermen returning holders in William Chandler and Cody Bruns. Both have excellent hands and worked extremely well with Folk. That competition will be similar to the battle between Rasp and Mahan last year.

The Huskies return some experienced kickoff returners in Kevin Smith, who averaged almost 26 yards per return, and Jesse Callier, who averaged 23 yards a kick. Kasen Williams returns as the main punt returner. He averaged 9.6 yards per attempt.

It is likely that a number of newcomers, like Jaydon Mickens or Marvin Hall from this most recent class, or Marcus Peters from the 2011 class, could get a chance to compete - especially at returning punts. Let's face it; Washington really hasn't had a great punt returner since Joe Jarzynka almost a decade ago. Williams might be the biggest punt returner the Huskies have ever had, and after averaging almost 10 yards per attempt is still a pretty dang good option. His workload at receiver is likely to increase, so being the regular returner may go to someone else. Whoever ends up back there on both returns will be critical to the overall play of the special teams.

Regardless of the returners, coach Sarkisian showed his commitment to special teams play by signing a kicker, a punter, and a snapper, but none of those guys has ever played a single snap at the four-year college level and until they do the special teams questions will remain unanswered.

Kicker Travis Coons (6-2, 195), who was one of only two JC players signed by the Huskies, shows a thunder leg on film and will be an immediate improvement over Folk at least in the area of kick-offs. He easily has the leg strength to kick into the end zone, and the ball just jumps off his foot because of his long legs and explosive snap at contact (Check out his video on Dawgman, although he doesn't do it against a live rush). It will be critical for Coons to be here this summer to get an opportunity to work with the holders and returning snappers.

Korey Durkee, out of Gig Harbor High School, did both the kicking and punting for his high school, and I did have the opportunity to watch him play. He is built exactly like Rasp at 6-4 and over 200 pounds, and Durkee regularly punted the ball over 45 yards per kick. He also did their kicking, but I would imagine he will concentrate on just punting at UW, where he shows a consistent drop and a good extension on his follow-through.

Both of these newcomers did both kicking and punting, but unless one is clearly the best at both phases it only makes sense for a first year player to concentrate on only one phase. They could easily be back-ups for each other.

The snapper position is the cloudiest right now because whoever it will be likewise has never done it in a live college game. The last player signed by the Huskies was offensive lineman Taylor Hindy, who the coaches had in camp so they must have seen him snap there. At 6-4 and 295 pounds, Hindy is much bigger than Lopez and probably won't be as effective in coverage simply due to his size and running ability. Remember, the snapper is protected in college and high school and is often released immediately after the snap, becoming one of the first downfield to cover.

Unfortunately, mistakes in the kicking game can be deciding factors in both momentum and the eventual outcome. Case in point: Folk's misses at key times on field goals from 39, 37, and 43 yards (all makable distances for him), a dropped kickoff inside the 5-yard line against Nebraska, and the two punt blocks all had negative impacts in each game they occurred. Likewise, UW scored special teams touchdowns against Utah and Washington State because of forced fumbles and blocked punts.

That is why the specialists are so critical in the game of football and exactly why I think this is the most important area for the team for the team to solidify as soon as possible.

I realize everyone will be watching the development of the defense this spring, but if Washington could start blocking kicks again with more regularity and occasionally get a return for a touchdown it would really help this team to take that next step in becoming an upper-echelon team in this conference. Think about this; if the Huskies could block just three kicks and return three for touchdowns, they would probably be a much improved team right there, especially if they didn't allow it to be done to them. Last year the top three teams in the Pac-12 - Oregon, Stanford and USC - all had returns for touchdowns.

Dawgman.com Top Stories