Continuing our 2012 spring practice preview, and in this installment of our on-going multi-part (program overview, head coach and coordinators, individual positions coaches - first part here, second part here, new defensive scheme, defensive line and linebackers) spring football preview, we're going to take a look at our much maligned special teams unit and discuss how they project going into spring practice.
New special teams coordinator, Jeff Ulbrich, is tasked with turning around one of most disappointing aspects of UCLA football: special teams. Over the years, we have watched a (usually) spectacular kicking game get overshadowed by a chicken sh*t return game. In 14 games last year, we had 16 punt returns for 49 yards. Total. That's an average of 3.06 yards per return, which ranked 117 out of 120 in Division I football.
We'll take a look at the projected starters and contributors for special teams after the jump.
Two-thirds of UCLA's kicking game returns. Long snapper Kevin McDermott and Jeff Locke are both very good at their respective positions. Locke averaged about 44 yards per punt, which is very good. Only 31 of his 64 punts were returned, and other than the disaster at Oregon St., nobody was able to break a long return off of his punt. McDermott may not receive the All-American accolades that Christian Yount received, but he has been rock solid in his duties.
It wouldn't have been unreasonable to expect Kip Smith to follow Justin Medlock and Kai Forbath in the line of excellent UCLA kickers, but it did not work out. Smith decided to transfer from UCLA and return closer to home in Colorado this spring. While Smith struggled in his short stint, his transfer leaves UCLA in a bit of a rough spot. During Smith's injury last year, Locke and soccer manager Tyler Gonzalez filled in. However, Gonzalez has graduated, and UCLA may be using another walk-on as a replacement. Joe Roberts will fill in this spring and get an early spot at winning the job before Ka'imi Fairbairn arrives on campus. Locke may also compete for the spot, despite the fact that the coaching staff has made it clear that they would rather not spread Locke too thin.
With regard to UCLA's moribund punt return game, the graduation of slow footed Taylor Embree may be addition by subtraction. Any 49er fan will tell you that a team needs a sure handed, intelligent return man, but sending Embree out was essentially giving up on the idea of any viable return. Andrew Abbott and Jordon James did get a look last year at punt returner, but not enough to make any sort of impression. I don't know if Coach Mora will be willing to risk any additional injury exposure to the already thin secondary, putting Abbott in the questionable area. If I were to guess, I would say that James gets first crack at return duties with Abbott and Damien Thigpen as alternates.
Our kick returner, Josh Smith, has also graduated after a so-so tenure. While explosive at Colorado before transferring to UCLA, Smith never really brought much excitement to Westwood. Yes, he had the occasional long return, but he never scored a touchdown and had numbers worse than Terrence Austin, another dependable-but-not-explosive return man who preceded Smith. Once again, I expect James and Thigpen to fill in with kick return duties.
Noticeably absent is the mention of any true freshmen. Ahmaad Harris, Randall Goforth, Kenny Walker, Fabian Moreau, and Ishmael Adams all performed return duties in high school. Harris, in particular, appears to have been recruited largely due to his return abilities. If one or two of these players can make a showing in the return game when they arrive, I fully expect this staff would not hesitate to use them in game. Coach Mora has been repeating that he will play the most capable players, regardless of seniority, and we all expect that those comments apply to special teams as well.
Now it's your turn to chime in with how you see the special teams shaping up for this upcoming season. Fire away in the comment threads with your thoughts and stay tuned for the next part of our spring training preview.