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Spring Football: Thoughts On Special Teams

We have gone through our defensive depth chart heading into spring ball. Before we move over to the offensive side of the ball, let's check in with our special teams. UCLA's official website has a solid breakdown of the entire roster in its spring outlook with the following toplines on our special teams:

Redshirt senior Kai Forbath (6-0, 195) is closing in on all of UCLA's career kicking records. The 2009 Lou Groza Award winner and the consensus All-America place kicker, he enters his senior year with 72 field goals (John Lee holds the record with 85) and a career percentage of .867, 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.

Redshirt sophomore Jeff Locke (6-1, 208) enjoyed a spectacular freshman season and should continue to improve. A year ago, he was one of the 10 semifinalists for the Ray Guy Award (only freshman on the list) and earned first-team Freshman All-America honors and second-team All-Pac-10 acclaim. 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. In addition, he handled the kickoff chores and led the Pac-10 with 20 touchbacks.

Getting back Forbath for another season was a big deal. All though most of us here though are expecting that his accuracy will remain high, we are all hoping we will need to use him lot less during this coming season. As good as Forbath is I really hope our offense gets to a point this year, when we don't have to collectively worry when we get in the red zone about settling for FGs.

As for Locke, I think he needs to improve in the department of strength and consistency (like other youngsters). He had a really good freshman season, but I got the sense he was pretty tired towards end of the year. His booming kickoffs this past season was a welcome change from the disaster from CRN's first year.

Elsewhere, our return game needs to improve. As has been discussed many times as resilient and hard worker Terrence Austin was we never had an explosive factor in our return game. Coaches will be looking at Josh Smith, who the OC Registered pointed to as one of the players to watch this spring:

Why he's one to watch: Goodbye Terrence Austin, hello Josh Smith? It might be that simple for the Bruins. after breaking school records, much like his UCLA predecessor, Smith is expected to take over kick return and punt return duties. [...]

Smith has hit-or-miss potential, which was not always appreciated in Boulder, and might only be a return specialist for the Bruins. Even there he has big shoes to fill, as Austin was a superb kick returner. At the very least, it's hard to imagine Smith won't be an upgrade as a punt returner.

Again, Austin was dependable but we never got the explosion. Let's hope Josh Smith can bring some of that. I also hope coaches take a look at kids like Randal Carroll and Damien Thigpen to see whether their speed can be made part of our special teams. It will be interesting to see if someone like Ricky Marvray will get a look, whose high school highlights showed some explosive capabilities as a special teamer.

In addition, our kickoff/punt return coverage needs to improve. Still have night mares from that Oregon game at the Rose Bowl.  Hopefully with better athletes in this unit our guys will do much better job of closing out the lanes for opposing kick returner. Last couple of years we have had guys like Sean Westgate making a big difference in special teams with punt blocks. I think he has two in last couple of seasons. With the athletes we have gotten in last two years, hopefully we can get in some more playmakers in the mix.

I think our special teams took a step forward last season with a complete kicking game (on kickoffs) and slightly better coverage. Hopefully this year, we can complete the circle with a superb kicking game, dependable kickoff coverage and some much needed explosive capabilities in our return game.