Back in the "win just one for the Gipper" days, crusty old football coaches in tight shorts and tube socks used to punctuate their sis-boom-bah speeches with the following admonition:
"Pay special attention to the kicking game, because it's there that the breaks are made!"
Then they'd spit on the ground and make everyone run laps or wind sprints until they keeled over and threw up.
Well, times - and football - have changed a bit since then. Today, motivational speeches are followed by 30 minutes of yoga and a reminder not to reveal the game plan on Twitter. But the old hominem still holds true. Offensive and defense get the attention and garner the headlines, but a game can turn on one great play by the special teams.
In recent years, UCLA's special teams have been a mixed bag and in some cases, a stick that's pointed on both ends. Huh? Let me explain - then I'll get into next season's outlook.
The mixed bag references both the kicking game, where finally-departed placekicker Kai Forbath and back-for-two-more-seasons punter Jeff Locke were among the best in the nation at their positions last season and UCLA's kick returners Josh Smith (kickoffs) and Taylor Embree (punts) rarely seemed to make an impactful play. (In fairness to Embree, he has arguably the best fair catch wave in the nation. Practice makes perfect, I guess.)
As for the pointed stick, well, follow me after the jump.
Forbath and Locke were so good at doing their jobs (one could make the argument that they were the two best players on the team or better said, they did their jobs better than anyone else did theirs - or something like that) that head coach Rick Neuheisel opted for sure field goals when the team needed touchdowns and that he opted to punt when the team needed to go for first downs. Forbath and Locke may have actually enabled Neuheisel's too-conservative approach by making long field goals and booming long punts that pinned the opposition deep in their own territory.
The most notable change for the 2011 special teams comes on the sidelines and not on the field. Neuheisel's original special teams coach, Frank Gansz, Jr. recently "resigned;" he's being replaced by Angus McClure, who held an administrative recruiting position in the program the past few seasons. What difference that makes on the special teams units remains to be seen, but it's hard to believe that anything McClure does could make the return game less impactful.
Let's look at the personnel. According to the recently released official spring outlook:
This group is headed by redshirt junior punter Jeff Locke (6-1, 210) who established himself as one the nation's best with another outstanding season in 2010. However, there will be a need to find a new long snapper, placekicker and holder.
Locke has enjoyed plenty of success in first two seasons as the starting punter. In 2010, he led the Pac-10 and ranked fifth in the nation with a 45.8 average. The Bruins' net punt average of 41.3 ranked second in the nation. A year ago, Locke was one of the 10 semifinalists for the Ray Guy Award (only freshman on the list). In addition, he has handled the kickoff chores in his first two seasons on the field, recording 34 touchbacks overall. He will not participate in Spring Practice due to off-season hip surgery.
Redshirt freshman kicker Kip Smith (6-0, 218), who earned All-America honors at Legacy High in Bloomfield, CO as a prep senior, will get first crack at taking over the placekicking chores from record-setting four-year starter Kai Forbath.
Assuming that's more than simple hyperbole, the kicking game once again should be in good hands - good feet - something like that. It should be on solid footing, does that work? Locke will again be one of the best at his position in the nation. As for Smith, there's no way to really know how he'll perform once the lights go on. But Smith, who was once committed to Minnesota before signing with UCLA had an excellent high school career and comes with the Chris Sailer seal of approval.
So, let's not worry about the kicking game - while reserving the right to worry about how Coach Neusheisel uses the kicking game.
As for the returners, it looks like more of the same. From the spring preview:
Redshirt senior receiver/kick returner Josh Smith (6-0, 209) served as the main kickoff returner in his first season on the field as a Bruin in 2010. The transfer from Colorado ranked eighth in the Pac-10 with his 22.59 kickoff return average and 13th in the conference in all-purpose yards (91.9). Smith also caught 11 passes as a receiver.
True senior Taylor Embree (6-3, 205) returned 15 punts for a 6.9 average last season, which ranked him sixth in the Pac-10.
What jumps out at me is the fact that Embree only returned 15 punts last season. Only 15? That tells me he had a lot of fair catches because he was out on the field all the time. (Smith, btw, was All-Big 12 as a returner before he transferred from Colorado to UCLA. The guy has the ability, he just needs to return to form.)
From my point of view, our return game is not producing in the return game in an impactful way. You don't have to have a long memory to recall the difference Maurice Jones-Drew and Matt Slater had on the team when they were breaking kicks and punts for long yardage. Having a great return game flips field position, shifts momentum and puts points on the board.
There's also a philosophical component to the return game. The return game involves risk. Running the ball out of the end zone and getting tackled inside your own ten hurts, eschewing the fair catch and muffing a punt can change a game instantly. And if the team was winning by employing a conservative return strategy, I couldn't really complain. It would just be a component in a successful formula.
But we won four games last year. It's impossible to argue that a more aggressive return game would have resulted in poorer season. What would have happened? We'd only have won three games?
The feeling here is that rather than this team play things conservatively and hope they can keep things close and steal games late, it needs to play more aggressively, take some chances and use the special teams to create breaks and momentum. Whether that means putting guys like the speedy Randall Carroll on the field, I can't say. They say Carroll has trouble holding on the ball. On the other hand, if Carroll gets a running start and finds a crease, he's gone.
To sum up: UCLA needs to be mindful of the kicking game, because it's there that the breaks are made. To do that, we need to put talented players on the field in spots where they can be effective, then allow them to show off their abilities in an aggressive style. We have the weapons. But another season of long field goals, punting on fourth and short and fair catch after fair catch will not get the job done. We need to use the special teams as weapons, not security blankets.