If there's one spot in Washington's Special Teams game that scares the crap out of Husky fans, it's the kicking game. And it's too bad too, because on paper it shouldn't be that bad. Cameron Van Winkle came into 2016 the most accurate placekicker in Washington history, and that's saying something considering some of the great kickers that have come through Montlake. But so far he's 4-7 on the year, 11th in the Pac-12 behind lowly Washington State. And he's even missed a couple of PATs, which is inexcusable. And the punting game has resulted in a net 36.4 yards per punt, good enough for eighth in the league. What might be scarier is when Tristan Vizcaino goes back to punt, the chances of a block seem to be growing. There just isn't a sense of supreme confidence in the kicking aspect of special teams right now. Both Van Winkle and Vizcaino are much better specialists than that, but they haven't shown it so far.
Washington is one of only two Pac-12 teams that have a touchdown in the punt return and kick return game, joining USC. John Ross and Dante Pettis have been very solid as the Huskies are first (27.2 yards per return) and third (12.3 yards per return) in the conference in kick returns and punt returns, respectively. As it has been their entire Husky careers, both are a threat to go every time they have the ball. The only blemish is the occasional penalty, like the block in the back versus Oregon that denied Pettis a second punt return score this season. But those penalties haven't been chronic, so it should be something the UW coaches can clean up moving forward. It's a great feeling knowing that, in a close game, a big return can be the kind of sudden-change play a team needs to get over the hump. And Washington has that kind of potential in their back pocket.
Washington's cover game starts with the kickoff, and this is the one lone bright spot for the kickers. Vizcaino has been solid with touchbacks, averaging nearly 50 percent. And that number is skewed somewhat, considering UW has employed popovers and other, shorter kicks to keep the ball away from dangerous return men. The Huskies' kickoff cover team is the only one in the Pac-12 averaging right at 20 yards allowed per return, and they are even better on punt returns, allowing a COMBINED TOTAL of -1 yards on 20 returns. That's just crazy. Part of that is due to the fact that Vizcaino isn't out-kicking his coverage. Out of 19 punts, Vizcaino has only put three inside the opponents' 20, and only two have been longer than 50 yards, so expect more of the same when it comes to higher, shorter punts that won't allow any big returns. The other reason why Washington covers so well on kicks and punts is that they use starters like Keishawn Bierria, Sidney Jones, etc... Those guys take pride in special teams, and it shows.
TOTAL SPECIAL TEAMS
The performance of the kickers to date is an anchor around this final grade, because everything else surrounding UW's special teams has been first rate. But until Cameron Van Winkle can show he's back to his old self and nailing kicks with regularity and Vizcaino demonstrates he has mastered the different styles of punting and turns that aspect of Washington's special teams into a weapon, the overall special teams will suffer. There's no reason to think they can't do it, and frankly they have done it in the past so there shouldn't be any reason for undue concern. But it has been a problem and hopefully was addressed - as much as it can be - during the bye week. Overall, Washington fans should feel that the transition from Jeff Choate to Bob Gregory as UW's Special Teams Coordinator has been a very smooth one.
Don James always felt special teams was an equal third to offense and defense, and was a part of the game that needed to be won in order to win the overall game. So far, this Washington team has taken special teams to heart and stressed its importance. If they can clean up the kicking issues, there's no reason UW's special teams can't match the exceptional quality of play we've seen from the Huskies so far on offense and defense.