Mid-Season Grades: Special Teams

With the offense and defense looked at, how did the Special Teams do throughout the first half of the 2012 season for Washington? Like the Huskies' season in general so far, the results were quite mixed. In among some very positive trends - especially in the return game - was a common theme; inconsistency is a constant when trying to replace all your kickers.

Punting: Everyone should have expected Korey Durkee to struggle a little bit. The freshman from Gig Harbor is just that - a true freshman - but I'm not sure anyone outside of kicking guru Chris Sailer thought Durkee might get replaced in favor of JC placekicker Travis Coons. But that's exactly what happened after the Portland State game.

It's not hard to argue Steve Sarkisian's decision to bench Durkee; his gross average of 36.9 yards per punt, if extrapolated out for the entire season, would have been the worst average per punt since walk-on Hamid Sarshar's 35.0 average in 1996. His drops were just too inconsistent and return teams were getting way too close for comfort when it came time to try and block one of Durkee's punts.

So it's a little ironic that the UW punter with the shorter run-up in Coons would be the one to get a punt blocked. All of a sudden the junior from southern California became a triple threat starting with the Stanford game, and actually had a phenomenal left-footed kick after trying to retrieve a slightly wayward snap that he couldn't corral. So far he's averaged just barely over 39 yards per kick - and the punt block suffered against him in the USC loss Saturday was a crushing blow on special teams, although in some ways it's a tough pill for Coons to swallow since a protection error most likely caused the block to occur.

Typically a punter can really do his most damage when completely changing the field position game. UW fans saw that first hand when LSU's Brad Wing punted from his own 34 to the UW 4-yard line. That's how a punter can make his biggest contribution - but I'll be honest. I can't really remember one punt so far in the first six games that stood out to me as a real field position-changing kick. Combined, the two punters have had nine punts inside the 20-yard line in 34 attempts and the Huskies are dead last in the Pac-12 in net punting, averaging only 33.3 net yards per punt despite the fact that the cover teams for the Huskies has actually been very solid.

Grade: D
Placekicking: The Huskies are 3-5 in field goals, which is 11th in the league for number of field goals attempted and number made. But the truth is, the number of attempts is certainly nothing you can pin on Coons since it is Sarkisian's decision to ultimately determine if they want to go for field goals in certain situations. One read on it is that Sarkisian is so unsure of Coons' ability that he's willing to risk more fourth down situations than kick field goals - but I don't believe that to be the case. Sarkisian, ever since he's come to UW, has shown a gambler's spirit and confidence in his own offense to convert fourth-down opportunities. So while misses like the one last week in their 10-point loss to USC never help, it's really too small a sample size to get a feel for whether or not Coons will be considered a clutch kicker by the time the end of the season rolls around. Coons has been rock solid on PAT's, going 17-17 so far.

Grade: B-
Return Teams: The return and cover teams are the bright spots of Washington's Special Teams. Even though they are only sixth in kickoff returns with an average of 23.1 yards per return and tenth in punt return average at 6.6 yards a return, there's no question they've got a touchdown return in them this year. Buried within those statistics are a few chances where the Huskies were just a tackle away from breaking one all the way - especially with Jaydon Mickens returning kicks and Marvin Hall returning punts. Add in Kevin Smith, who was a great returner in 2011, and you have the makings of three very potent returners. The odds of one of them going to the house in 2012 is strong.

A muffed return by Hall early in the Huskies' 52-21 loss at Oregon was really costly, arguably the lone blemish in what has been by far the most productive part of Washington's Special Teams - but again in hindsight that play doesn't really flatter Hall since it sounds like it was a play called from the sidelines and he was following the lead of the coaches in trying to catch what was going to be a clearly contested kick.

Grade: B+
Cover Teams: Teams playing UW are basically averaging the exact same yardage on kickoff and punt returns that the Huskies are (23 yards per kick return and just short of seven yards per punt return), so I consider that a wash - meaning that while Washington hasn't been able to break any real big returns yet, they haven't let anyone on the other team loose either. And frankly I think the odds are better that Washington has a return for a score this year before the opposition does.

The Huskies have held a couple different elite return men in DeAnthony Thomas and Marqise Lee in check, holding the two to 59 total return yards. That's impressive. You add to that a couple of blocked field goals and extra points this year - one even returned for a touchdown - and that aspect has also been very encouraging.

Grade: B+
Coaching: For the most part, the Special Teams for Washington - led by coordinator Johnny Nansen - has been solid, especially on the cover teams. They haven't had any glaring breakdowns that have led to big, big returns and touchdowns. The blocks with regard to punts and field goals has also been fun to watch but gets negated in part when they have punts of their own blocked. It's tough to hear that a protection the Huskies apparently ran 342 times in practices and games over the course of the year is blown on the 343rd try when it mattered most, but that's what did happen.

But overall I think Special Teams has become a strength for Washington. It's difficult to bring in new faces at every kicking position and expect instant success. They made the difficult but correct decision to promote Coons to punter and he has attacked the job in a no-nonsense manner. While the punts and kicks haven't been spectacular, they haven't been so poor as to completely detract from the rest of the Huskies' Special Teams efforts.

Looking at the Huskies' Special Teams from the outside, the potential for big plays in the return game is finally back at UW. It's been over five years since a Husky took back a kick for six - Louis Rankin - and it's been since 2003 when Charles 'ET' Frederick took a punt back 86 yards at Oregon State, part of a 371-yard day that stands as the UW all-time record for all-purpose yardage. Outside of a 62-yard return by Anthony Russo in 2007, the longest punt return in nine years has been 26 yards. Cody Bruns already has a 27-yard return and both he and Marvin Hall have the potential to go even farther than that. They are just starting to get their feet underneath them, and clearly their best returns are to come.

It's the coaches' job to put the playmakers in positions to make big plays and influence games. I think the coaches have done a very good job in recruiting speed for the return positions and have given them blocking schemes to spring them into open territory. I do believe Steve Sarkisian when he says they are just a tackle away from going the distance.

Grade: B+

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