Improved Kicking Game Critical for Turnaround

While watching practice this week with Former Legendary Washington Coach Don James, he commented to me how it was apparent there was an obvious emphasis being put on the kicking game. This is not to demean their approach the past few years, but only to point out there is a renewed commitment to upgrading all aspects of kicking.

Brian White, who was hired in the off-season to take over the special teams, has already made a noticeable contribution. He has instituted a highly organized approach and it is going to have a positive impact on the overall success of this Husky team. White inherited two major pieces in punter Jared Ballman and long snapper Danny Morovick. Both are experienced and have made noticeable improvements over the past off-season. They will be the foundation of a solid field position game.

Ballman appears quicker in his get-offs and has added both distance and hang time to his punts. I believe he could average 45 yards and 4.5 seconds on his hang. He periodically hits over 50 yards and enters the season as a returning starter who should make a positive impact throughout the season. He also looks like he will be the kickoff man and has good height and frequently kicks the ball inside the 5-yard line, with a few actually reaching the end zone. Much of his progression reflects his obvious work in the weight room and I'd be surprised if he doesn't have a solid year finishing as one of the top three punters in the conference.

Ryan Perkins returns for another season and is being pressed hard in practice by Ballman, who has a stronger leg, and Erik Folk, a red-shirt who may also help but probably only in home games because it's tough to fit three kickers on the travel squad. Perkins hit 4 out of 5 the other day despite still wearing a brace on his kicking leg. His knee has been through two operations for a torn anterior cruciate ligament. Perkins is a gutsy competitor but Ballman has the stronger leg and Folk has displayed an array of onside kicks that are always valuable.

Danny Morovick is the long and short snapper, and he too worked hard in the off-season hoping to lose a tick on both to prevent further blocks. Last year against the Oregon Ducks, the Huskies suffered a blocked punt and two kickoff returns of 34 and 35 yards. All three were instrumental in giving the Ducks good field position. The block by the Ducks' Patrick Chung luckily didn't lead to a score but it did swing the field position game.

Who will be the returners is the biggest question mark when it comes to the specialists. Leading wide receiver D'Andre Goodwin is in the hunt with a bunch of rookies and looks to be the best on punt returns, although that could certainly change because he is so valuable as a receiver. Regardless, he is the only returner with playing experience and it's always smart to put a veteran back there on punts, especially one with solid hands.

Brandon Johnson returned kickoffs last year but it is highly unlikely he'll be healthy enough to do so in the first game. That means they are probably going to be using a freshman and I wouldn't be surprised to see both of the Polk kids back there. Chris Polk did it in the spring and Jordan Polk is fast enough and small enough to get lost in coverage. Both have shown good anticipation as to where the hole will open behind the wedge and both have the necessary speed to hit it up in there. Jordan is small enough to literally hide behind the blockers then dart to the opening.

I don't think they will make a decision on the returners until the week of the first game but are giving lots of kids looks. Cody Bruns is a candidate because of his hands but for right now I think both return positions are still in competition. The major emphasis has been on drills and the team aspects of kicking.

Coach White is highly organized and very emphatic about the techniques he wants to use in both protection and coverage. The team drills daily on improving every aspect of kicking and that means six to seven different phases. Each session of two-a-days has kicking periods and there is always a variety of drills, all taking place at the same time. Most of the coaches are involved, but it is obvious that White has control and knows what he trying to get accomplished with each kicking period.

This was all encouraging to Coach James as he watched and I asked him where was his stop-watch. As coach he always was timing the snap, the get-off, the hang, and any other individual phase of kicking. It was obvious that this kind of attention to detail is again apparent as the Huskies prepare for their opener.

Coach White is also asking a number of starting players to join in and they are being used in an effort to improve the team aspects.

I know there are lots of people who question my obsession to the kicking game but I really think this is one area where games can be stolen, particularly in coverage and protection. For example, Ballman had what was really a pretty good day punting last year against the Ducks, averaging 50.8 on four punts - but that one block is something that simply cannot happen.

It can if you're doing the blocking, and that is the point. Each time your special teams hit the field - be it for a punt, an extra-point or field goal, to block or to return a punt, to kick off or return a kickoff, or to block a field goal - is an opportunity to turn the game around. Big plays in the kicking game are momentum-changers. Even if you score, if you let the opponent return it to midfield on the ensuing kickoff, much is lost.

First downs are typically hard-earned, so anytime you can gain 10 yards on a punt return, it is valuable to your offense. If you can return one to the house it usually decides games.

Coach White is making an obvious impact on what the Huskies are doing in the kicking game. Now it just comes down to execution on game day. No mistakes like drops, fumbles, or penalties and no breakdowns in protection on punts or field goals gives your team a much better chance of winning. Remember its not that you have to win the kicking game its just that you can't lose it. Usually though when you get a block or a return for a touchdown you usually win the game.

My bet is that could happen against the Ducks, who will be using a new snapper in this first game.

The kicking game and turnover battle are two of the hidden factors in the outcome of any game. Last year the Ducks mounted an all-out rushing assault on the Huskies. By gaining 465 yards on 62 carries, Oregon controlled the ball for 32 more snaps than the Huskies. Washington still had its chances but missed intercepting three passes they had their hands on, and one would have been for a touchdown. You can't miss on those sorts of opportunities just like you can't give up yardage on returns.

In order to upset the Oregon Ducks August 30th, the Washington Huskies need to win both the turnover battle and the kicking game. If they successfully do both, the number of yards gained could be meaningless. Football is still a game of field position and these two factors arguably have more to do with that than either your offense or your defense. Top Stories