Spaulding Roundup: Special Teams Focus On A Quiet Day From UCLA

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Spor

A roundup of how the UCLA special teams played throughout the season and a brief look at an early top 25 for 2014 from Athlon Sports. The Bruins are in preparations for their game against the Virginia Tech Hokies on New Year's Eve in the Sun Bowl.

There isn't any actual news out of UCLA today, at least as of this writing. So this is going to be a much more free form writeup of UCLA football. There have been a number of intelligent and well-reasoned takes on this season in posts, in comments and from outside of this site. It is pretty universally accepted as important to get the 10th win and finish this season at 10-3 instead of 9-4. And, though I am a fan of Virginia Tech's defense and of Frank Beamer, the Virginia Tech Hokies should not be a team that is able to beat as athletically gifted and physically skilled a team as the Bruins are.

A convincing advantage offensively in comparison to the Hokies' offense and a huge advantage if you compare the Bruins' defense to the Hokies' offense, as dbear737 pointed out in his preview of the game. While the Hokies haven't played as good of an offense as the Bruins outside of against Miami and Alabama, both games that the Hokies had huge special teams issues against.

And, as luck should have it, that is the Bruins biggest edge in this game, and probably in any game. The special teams of UCLA. I was said in the comment thread of dbear's FEI preview but I think it bears (no pun intended) repeating to put into context just how good of a job Jeff Ulbrich and the special teams units played this season. FEI has the special teams of the Bruins at #8 in the country, which is remarkable. Here is a brief history of UCLA's special teams play in terms of FEI.

2007: UCLA ranked 5th (with a Pro Bowl kick returner and special teams player, an NFL punt returner, an NFL kicker and a borderline NFL punter).

2008: UCLA ranked 67th.

2009: UCLA ranked 21st (nearly perfect season from Forbath going 28-31 on FGs and Jeff Locke averaged 44 yards a punt)

2010: UCLA ranked 28th (Forbath and Locke averaged 46 yards per punt)

2011: UCLA ranked 87th (just a very bad all around season for this, Tyler Gonzalez, Taylor Embree, Kip Smith)

2012: UCLA ranked 73rd.

Jumping up more than 60 spots in one season is call for praise. These guys don't get nearly enough praise, so I'm going to dish it out here. Jeff Ulbrich was recognized as the Special Teams Coach of the Year, which is a praise to the players and assistant coaches (one of whom is David Allen, special teams standout from last season and his entire career) as well as Ulbrich. Here's just a brief overview of each special teams group.

The kickoff and punt coverage units (19th in both at 4.2 yards per punt return and 18.9 per kickoff return) were great. Net punting, another measure of punt coverage, was 22nd at 39 yards per punt on 49 punts with a true freshman punter replacing a punter that was drafted (something that almost never happens with the NFL). Sean Covington is going to end up as an All-Conference punter with this coaching staff in place, I'm pretty confident about that.

The returns units got a lot of flash with the influx of Ishmael Adams at the end of the year, but that underscores how good the units were the rest of the season. The kickoff return unit with Steven Manfro as the primary returner was an explosive unit (25 yards per return on 18 returns). The kickoff return unit with Devin Fuller as the primary returner was an explosive unit (28 yards per return on 8 returns). Ishmael Adams was exceptional as well and brings a more elusive element than those two, but the kickoff returns were the best UCLA has had since Matthew Slater.

Shaquelle Evans started out the year as a punt returner and was superb through the Stanford game, averaging 15 yards per return on his first 8 tries (which would be top 10 nationally and was at the time). Then, for whatever reason, over his next 8 returns he gained a total of zero yards with lots of returns that went for negative yardage (which still got him to 40th in the NCAA overall). Exactly what happened is probably blame that can be spread around to Evans, the blockers and good coverage by opponents.

The field goal kicking is the only area where UCLA is not outstanding, just average maybe a little above. Ka'imi Fairbairn is not Justin Medlock or Kai Forbath but he's one of the better kickers in the conference and just a sophomore. Bright side is that no kicks or punts were blocked, which puts UCLA in a tie for 1st in the NCAA in both categories while blocking 6 combined through the year.

There is no reason for UCLA to not continue performing at a very high level on special teams with players like Jayon Brown, Cameron Judge, Taylor Lagace, Jalen Ortiz, Kenny Orjioke and many others contributing and developing into even better athletes and football players than they already are. With a question as to just how talented the Bruins look to be next year, look below.

Athlon came out with a early top 25 for 2014 and the Bruins came in at #9, though it is under the assumption that Brett Hundley returns (which is a topic I don't really feel needs to be talked about much more until after the bowl game because there will not be any new developments until then). Other Pac-12 teams represented ahead of the Bruins were Stanford and Oregon (at #5 and #6). Southern Cal (#15), Arizona State (#17), Washington (#21) were in the top 25, with Arizona, Oregon State and Washington State being listed as other teams to watch.

The Bruins will have a lot of competition in the 2014 season, but with the surplus of talent returning and the influx of more talented freshman (10th in star rating per recruit by Scout at this point with multiple 4 and 5 star players still in play for Mora and staff). We should all look forward to seeing this groups of seniors play one last time and to see the young players continue to flourish and develop.

Until next time, Go Bruins!

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