Post-Spring Review: Special Teams

Starting Wednesday, Dawgman.com will be breaking down all the position groups to see where UW stands after the first 15 practices of the Chris Petersen Era. Up now is the special teams unit, a hodgepodge of players expected to converge into a highly cohesive group, responsible for one-third of a game. But with a shaky punter and a kicker on the mend, how much work were they able to get in?

Special Teams:
Punter:
46 Korey Durkee - Jr.


Kicker:
48 Cameron Van Winkle - So.
49 Mitch Johnson - So.


Long Snap:
77 Ryan Masel - Jr.


Short Snap:
80 Evan Hudson - Sr.


Holder:
46 Korey Durkee - So.
4 Jaydon Mickens - Jr.


Kick Return:
1 John Ross - So.
4 Jaydon Mickens - Jr.


Punt Return:
16 Marvin Hall - Jr.
4 Jaydon Mickens - Jr.


What did they do in the spring? - Well, as far as kickers went, both Van Winkle - coming off a bad back in 2013 - and walk-on transfer Johnson got plenty of work inside the 40, but I can't remember them getting any shots from long distance. From an accuracy standpoint, the sophomore Van Winkle and sophomore UCLA transfer Johnson were pretty even. At times Johnson looked the shakier of the two, but neither one of them were seriously challenged inside 40 yards.

Durkee, the maligned punter from Gig Harbor, once again had every opportunity to make the task of picking a starter an easy one for the new UW coaching staff, but I don't think it happened. The 6-foot-4, 236-pound Durkee has all the talent and athleticism in the world to be a top-notch punter, but has been dogged throughout his brief college career by massive inconsistency. During one practice he would boom punts on average of 55 to 60 yards, only to then shank a couple into Row Z. It's not how Durkee is going to engender trust by the coaches to handle pressure - like kicking out of your own end zone - in a game.

Chris Petersen, besides being the head coach, has made no secret of his love of getting in there and coaching the returners. He has some real talent to work with in John Ross, Jaydon Mickens, Marvin Hall, Jermaine Kelly, and others - and he'll have even more when guys like Budda Baker and Sidney Jones show up in the fall. The return game should be the one rock-sold piece of special teams play the Huskies can consistently count on. Ross finally broke through with a 100-yard touchdown return, the one we knew he would eventually break, and Hall has been a two-year stalwart at punt returner. There's explosiveness and big-play capability with every return now for the Huskies, not something we could have said in years' past.

With the other key special teams position, arguably the one that might lead to the most questions heading into fall is that of Jaydon Mickens as holder. Durkee handled all the PAT's and FG's last season, but the new staff has installed Mickens as the backup holder - for now. There's no doubt as soon as Husky fans saw Mickens at holder their minds went crazy with all the possible opportunities for fake plays. It's not the same with Durkee, who - it has to be said - has been extremely consistent at that position.

But Mickens back there holding the football? The mind wanders! Could he throw it, could he run with it, could he be the first option to other things, like reverses and whatnot? There's no doubt that, while Durkee has proved to be a reliable option at holder, Mickens at that position opens up a world of possibilities. And we all know about Petersen's reputation for the gadget play, called at just the right time.

Where does the position stand heading into the summer? - Until freshman kicker Tristan Vizcaino enrolls in the LEAP program, it's status quo for both Van Winkle and Johnson - who certainly didn't do anything to take themselves out of the running to be Washington's No. 1 kicker in the fall. But the honest assessment is, they were really tested all that much, and didn't really separate from one another either. Vizcaino comes in with heady credentials, including being named the No. 1 combo kicker/punter with a five-star rating by Chris Sailer Kicking.

It's not just Van Winkle and Johnson who should be checking their backs; Durkee is also in position to get lapped by the true frosh Vizcaino if he can't overcome his punting inconsistencies.

You have to hope that Mickens (as well as Durkee, for that matter) continues to take time from working with the receivers to dedicate some effort to being a difference-maker at holder, because I truly doubt the coaching staff would have even bothered looking at him as an option if they weren't serious about his potential there. Working the battery with Evan Hudson, the short snapper, is vital, and it's during the summer when those players can really get out there and dedicate time and energy toward the point where the snap and hold become second-nature. As the old saying goes, you never even think about a snapper or holder until they screw up, and there's no doubt that Hudson, Durkee, and Mickens don't want to be those guys this fall.

What to look for in the fall - Obviously we want to see what kind of an immediate impact Tristan Vizcaino makes on the special teams unit as a whole. Does he relegate Van Winkle or Johnson to kickoff duties? Or Durkee? Do the incumbents step up and do so well that the coaches have a very tough decision on their hands, and now all the three kicking duties (kickoff, punting, and placekicking) are in great hands with four legitimate options? That would be the hope, if you're Chris Petersen.

When they come back in the fall, does Mickens' role increase as a special teams presence? Right now he's behind Ross at kickoff return and Hall at punt return, so does that holding experiment really take shape? Does he become an immediate worry for staffs defending Washington special teams because of his ability to fake at that position at any given time? There's no doubt the new staff is licking their chops and dialing up some serious gadgetry in the playcalling lab, because Mickens gives you just versatility at that spot.

Lastly, do any of the true frosh raise a serious battle in the return game? Can Budda Baker and Sidney Jones and their immense talent supplant that of Ross, Hall, Mickens, and more? Probably not, but isn't just mouth-watering to know that level of game-breaking ability is out there, waiting to be used? Baker, especially, is a guy that just oozes talent and I'm sure Petersen is already thinking of ways to get those true frosh out there in a position to bolster UW's return game even that much more.


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