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Fall Position Preview - Special Teams

With less than 50 days to Washington's September 3rd opener versus Rutgers, it's time to ramp things up with our fall position previews. Today we take a look at the final preview, yet arguably one of the most important ones - Special Teams.

In an attempt to limit live reps and keep players healthy, spring camp had a few days where special teams was a priority. Whether it was Chris Petersen working individually with punt returners to perfect technique, half-speed walkthroughs of kickoff coverage, or fun games at the end of practice like Kaleb McGary fielding punts, it seemed that as camp progressed, special teams became more of a focus.

There’s no doubt that Petersen and his new special teams coordinator, Bob Gregory, are meticulous when it comes to details. Van Soderberg went from heir apparent to Korey Durkee to possibly needing a year to adjust and perfect his craft after the coaching staff asked him to work on the timing of his drop.

Little things like that can go by unnoticed but can be big difference makers come football season. Just over a year ago a punt return touchdown and blocked punt were the difference between getting embarrassed by Boise State and a respectable loss. At the same time, a missed long field goal could have tied it.

The pressure of special teams is unlike any other. Kickers, punters, holders and snappers are seldom noticed unless they go out and make a mistake. That’s why attention to detail is so important when it comes to special teams.

Expect special teams to be a consistent focal point of fall camp this season.


Specialists (by year)

Cameron Van Winkle (5’10” 189, Sr)
Jeff Lindquist (6’3” 244, Sr)
Tristan Vizcaino (6’2” 201, Jr)
John Ross III (5’11” 196, Jr)
Dante Pettis (6’1” 187, Jr)
Budda Baker (5’10” 184, Jr)
Luke Hutchison (6’2” 226, Jr)*
Chico McClatcher (5’7” 176, So)
A.J. Carty (6’2” 245, RFr)
Sebastian Valerio (5’9” 180, RFr)*
Andre Baccellia (5’10” 166, RFr)
Van Soderberg (5’11” 199, Fr)

*=walk-on

Projected Depth Chart

Place Kicker
Cameron Van Winkle (5’10” 189, Sr)
Tristan Vizcaino (6’2” 201, Jr)
Sebastian Valerio (5’9” 180, RFr)

Kickoff
Tristan Vizcaino (6’2” 201, Jr)
Van Soderberg (5’11” 199, Fr)

Punter
Tristan Vizcaino (6’2” 201, Jr)
Van Soderberg (5’11” 199, Fr)

Snapper
A.J. Carty (6’2” 245, RFr)
Luke Hutchison (6’2” 226, Jr)

Holder
Jeff Lindquist (6’3” 244, Sr)
Dante Pettis (6’1” 187, Jr)

Kick Return
John Ross III (5’11” 196, Jr)
Chico McClatcher (5’7” 176, So)
Budda Baker (5’10” 184, Jr)

Punt Returner
Dante Pettis (6’1” 187, Jr)
Andre Baccellia (5’10” 166, RFr)
Chico McClatcher (5’7” 176, So)


Where does the Special Teams unit stand heading into the fall?

For a second consecutive fall, the Huskies have the kicking aspect of special teams down pat. Cameron Van Winkle, whose career field goal percentage would rank atop the Husky record books if it holds, will close out his career in purple and gold as the starting kicker for the third consecutive season.

Tristan Vizcaino will remain the kickoff specialist while tackling punt duties as well. Again, on paper, the Huskies look solid in the kicking department.

Similarly, the snapping and holding positions are also on lock, with redshirt freshman AJ Carty and returning fifth-year senior Jeff Lindquist.

Even with Vizcaino looking like the guy this fall, it will be interesting to watch the development of Van Soderberg. Getting used to a quicker release on his punts will be essential down the road as Vizcaino will assume place kicker duties next year after Van Winkle graduates.

Allowing him to focus on that transition will be a lot easier for Soderberg so he can emerge as a Pac-12 ready starter next season.

There is one noticeable difference from last year’s special teams to this year’s, and that’s in the return game.

A healthy John Ross adds an enormous boost to a unit that finished 11th in the Pac-12 in average kickoff returns. Ross is a threat to take any kick the distance. Equally important, Ross averaged 4.5 yards more per return in his sophomore season than the whole team did last year. Sorry for the cliché, but football is a game of inches, and an extra 4.5 yards per drive could be the difference between a three points and a punt, a touchdown and being stopped on the goal line. Ross’ return certainly will give a boost to the weakest part of the UW special teams last season.

The strongest part of Washington’s special teams unit in 2015 remains a threat this fall, as Dante Pettis continues his reign as the most potent punt returner in the conference. Pettis’s three return touchdowns are equal to Ross returning kickoffs, although he seems to have slid a little more under the radar as a threat to take one the distance.

The most interesting question of fall camp from a special teams standpoint is who will emerge as coverage team impact players.

True freshmen toeing the line between getting playing time and getting redshirted are prime candidates for these roles: special teams is what often makes a true freshman indispensable. Look at Ben Burr-Kirven last year. As a 201-pound MIK linebacker, Burr-Kirven wiggled his way into playing as a true freshman via exceptional special teams coverage. That was the foot in the door he needed to later take on a bigger role when Azeem Victor was suspended for the first half against the Ducks. He registered a sack in that game, racked up seven tackles in the next, and from that moment on was a key part of both the coverage team and the linebacker corps.

Burr-Kirven would later go on to be named Special Teams Player of the Year at Washington's post-season banquet. Other key contributors and starters, like Darren Gardenhire, Jordan Miller, and Azeem Victor began their careers as special team specialists. 

With that in mind, true freshmen Brandon Wellington, Camilo Eifler, Isaiah Gilchrist, Taylor Rapp, Kentrell Love, and Byron Murphy are a few to keep an eye on as potential coverage team regulars this season.

For players who redshirted last year, like Austin Joyner and DJ Beavers, they could maximize their usage on Saturdays by making special teams a priority.



Luke Mounger is Dawgman.com’s Lead Intern. Read more from Luke here. Follow Luke on Twitter: @LukeMounger



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