We're less than two weeks away from the start of fall practices and with the release of the official (albeit tentative) depth chart for fall practices, it's time to start thinking about how each unit shakes out. The one consistent hallmark of UCLA football for the last decade or so has been consistent, if unspectacular, special teams play. The Bruins have relied on the big legs of Kai Forbath, Chris Kluwe, Aaron Perez, and Justin Medlock for the most part of both Neuheisel's and Dorrell's tenures. Their field goals and ability to keep UCLA in the game by way of winning the field position battle has masked, at times, an otherwise anemic Bruin offense or porous UCLA defense.
This season, however, special teams play will be in flux. First, All-American kicker Kai Forbath is gone. You can't just replace Mr. Automatic, and redshirt freshman Kip Smith has some massive shoes to fill. Punter Jeff Locke returns from last season, but he's coming off a hip injury that UCLA doesn't expect to impair his ability to punt. That said, with our apparently cursed injury history, if Locke's injury lingers, it could be a major blow to our special teams, especially given that he's a contender for the Ray Guy award this year and generally considered one of the, if not the, best punter in the Pac-12.
The other side of the coin has been that our return game has, until a few seasons ago, been consistently average, with the occasional big play. Ever since Taylor Embree became one of our primary return men, our return game has been non-existent. Despite the promise of Josh Smith, an accomplished return man during his time in Boulder, transferring to UCLA, the Bruins have yet to develop a semi-consistent home run threat in the return game.
With that, let's take a look at the special teams depth chart going into fall practice after the jump.
|PLACE KICKER||PUNTER||KICKOFFS||LONG SNAPPER||HOLDER|
|Jeff Locke or Kip Smith||Jeff Locke||Jeff Locke||Kevin McDermott||Jeff Locke|
|Kip Smith||Kip Smith||Alex Mascarenas|
|KICKOFF RETURN||PUNT RETURN|
|Josh Smith||Taylor Embree|
|Josh Smith or Jordon James|
For the kickers, nothing has really changed since the end of spring practice. Locke returns as the primary kick-off and punt specialist, and despite our wishes to the contrary, he'll be called upon on a fairly regular basis this season:
The senior is recovering from a hip injury that has kept him out of spring drills, so perhaps that's why he was left off the list. But a) UCLA expects him to be healthy for fall camp, and b) the man bombs. He has registered 34 touchbacks on kickoffs over the last two years; UCLA led the nation in net punting average last year; and Locke plays on a team with such a, shall we say, punt-intensive offense that he'll have loads of opportunities to show off his leg in 2011.
Kip Smith is, right now, an unproven commodity as Kai's replacement, but should he falter, Locke is expected to pick up place-kicking duties as well. Having an experienced leg in Locke gives us a nice cushion if the redshirt freshman struggles. Regardless, the loss of the most consistent offensive weapon for UCLA (Kai) is going to put even more pressure on Kevin Prince and the rest of the offense to finally put it together and consistently find the end zone.
Speaking of the kicking game, the kicker is useless if the ball doesn't make it to his foot first. Not only are we replacing Kai, but All-American long-snapper Christian Yount (who just recently signed with Tampa Bay). Stepping in for Christian will be Kevin McDermott, who was previously profiled here. In short, with so many new pieces in place for our kicking game, 3 points won't be automatic as it has been the past few years.
Turning to the return game, spring practice didn't give us any insight to how this aspect of our special teams will shape up this season. However, Josh Smith is listed as the out-and-out starter for kick-off returns with Embree listed as the starting punt returner. I don't need to re-hash the issues people have had with Embree returning punts the last two seasons: yes, he's a dependable pair of hands, but he has no ability to create, essentially relegating him to being the designated fair-catcher.
Instead, as I noted in the spring special teams review:
As to punt returns, [spring] practice reports indicate that the coaching staff rotated Smith, Embree, and James on an even basis. For now, the staff has Embree penciled in as starting, but since he's pretty much only good to fair catch, Neuheisel will need to inject some energy back there: that's why Jordon "the Joystick" James is likely to get some of the punt return action, especially given his running ability and excellent hands. Simply put, Rick has to make a change at punt returner. He can't gamble on playing it safe this year: either he puts up results or he'll likely be on the fast track out of Westwood.
Jordon James is a name that keeps floating around the interwebs when people think about a high-potential game-changing playmaker. He's been the topic of discussion on BN and people are anxious to see some life in our punt return game. Embree will probably end up starting or splitting the duties with James, at least until James can resolve whatever fumbling/hands issues he has on punt returns. Simply put: the kid is too good not to have the ball in his hands and since the backfield is already crowded, punt returns seems like a good way to get the ball in the hands of our of our most exciting playmakers.
After all, it's the make-or-break season. It's time to take some gambles on special teams.