We have gone over the depth chart for both our offense and defense in detail. You didn't think we forgot about special teams. Did you? Coach Rick Neuheisel mentioned it pretty prominently during his Pac-10 Media Day remarks:
For the first time since I got to UCLA, we are an experienced football team. That doesn't mean we won't have an infusion of young guys that will still be key players. But we have guys like Rahim, Kevin Prince and Akeem Ayers. These guys have played and played at a high level. And our kicking game is quite possibly the best in the country. If we can be consistent on both sides of the ball, play to our strengths with special teams as we increase team speed, hopefully we can be a team who wins those games that got away from us in the month of October last year, and as we do that then we can get back into the Conference race and get back into the national discussion."
Don't get me wrong. I absolutely hate the idea of playing Donahue football and settling for FGs. I hate the idea of our offense getting complacent and playing it safe in the red zone feeling comfortable about a sure 3, instead of staying aggressive and going for 6 points. Saying that, I think I understand what CRN is trying to say in terms of using the special teams to play up our strengths.
I think what CRN means that there will be opportunities for Kai Forbath, Jeff Locke, and new skill players taking over Terrance Austin's return role, to play crucial factors in close games. If we look back at last season, it was breakdown on special teams return team that led to Oregon grabbing a chokehold on the momentum in what was a close game at the Rose Bowl. Neuheisel is hoping that with a little more experience this year the balance will be tipping our way.
In terms of previewing the kicking game there is not a lot we can say at this point to talk up Kai Forbath. He is on pretty much every pre-season All American list. His numbers are ridiculous. He is only 13 away from tying up John Lee's school record of 85 FGs. His career percentage of .867 is best in UCLA history. Last season, he led the nation in field goals per game 2.15, making 28 of 31 attempts. All three of his misses were from at least 51 yards and he enters the 2010 season having made 41 of his last 44 attempts overall and 37 straight kicks inside of 50 yards. He also has nine career field goals of at least 50 yards and a .750 percentage from that distance. He has been clutch. We are looking forward to Kai leaving on a memorable note. Hopefully this is the year when he will be kicking to pile on instead of being a reminder of an offense stagnating in the red zone.
Jeff Locke had a solid freshman season as a punter who also handled kickoff duties. What I really appreciated about him last year was his deep kickoffs (resulting in 20 touchbacks that led the conference). That was a huge improvement for the special teams from the previous season. He averaged 43.63 yards per kick to rank second in the Pac-10 and 16th in the nation and UCLA ranked first in the Pac-10 in net punting. I do think his numbers tapered off a bit towards the second half of the season, which could be due to freshman fatigue.
Both of these guys will be joined by Kip Smith, who is a pretty highly recruited kicker from Colorado this year. As for making too much out of a kicking game, one just needs to watch the bowl game highlights from this past-season (specifically the one between Auburn and Northwester) to get a sense of how important it is to have reliable kicking game for a good football team.
As for our return game, I think Josh Smith is going to get the first shot in taking over Terrance Austin's spot. As we have mentioned before Austin was a solid Bruin. He was dependable and reliable back there, which is why coaches trusted him. Yet we need more explosive play making ability from this position. I think if Smith is healthy, he could emerge as a big plus. There will be other candidates such as Randall Carroll, Ricky Marvray, and Damien Thigpen, who will probably give it a go as return guys. All of them have the speed and has the playmaking "potential." Hopefully the potential will turn into productive performances this upcoming season.
Let's also hope the special teams will continue to come through in other ways. In last two years we have gotten some huge plays thanks to the efforts of guys like Sean Westgate, who play with reckless abandon as part of the special teams. Westgate was the lynchpin a huge punt block for TD that was one of the keys to our upset over Tennessee couple years ago. He also got another one for safety against Washington State this past season. As we get infusion of more athletic and physical talents into our overall roster, hopefully that translates into faster, more physical, and smarter play from our special teams.
Our special teams certainly took a step forward this past season with a more complete kicking game (showing significant improvement in kickoffs). Our kickoff coverage also improved as well. Hopefully this year we can kick it up a notch (no pun intended) with a return game with a little more explosion and minimizing breakdowns in return coverage. As CRN said above we are going to need this unit to play up to its potential and beyond, so that balance starts tipping our way in close games.
UPDATE (N): From Bald Eagle:
[Christian Yount] is an important part of our Special Teams and (as many have commented) he is the Playboy Pre-Season All-American Long Snapper.
CY is on at least 3 of the 6 special teams (PAT: FG; Punt) and a critical component of those. Without a good snap, Locke and Forbath have very little chance of succeeding.
This guy is special and deserves some ink. I did a search and didn’t see his name come up in any other preview write-ups!
According to CRN (i spoke with him about long snapping at the UCLA Youth Football Camp as my son is interested in getting better at long snapping), CY is more accurate from 20 yards snapping between his legs then 90% of DI QBs are throwing.
Lets show him some love!
True enough. GO BRUINS.