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2011 UCLA Pre-Season Camp: Questions Around Special Teams

October 30, 2004: MJD houses one during a punt return against Stanford. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
October 30, 2004: MJD houses one during a punt return against Stanford. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

Let's keep the BN "preview" train moving. In case you have not brushed up your pre-camp reading, make sure to check out the preview posts on the offense, defense, special teams, linebackers, defensive line, defensive backs, and offensive line.  Now let's continue with a look at yet another look through the special teams. Achilles and Bellerophon have set all of us up well with a look at our special teams last few months. During spring Achilles articulated how UCLA needs to start using the special teams as "weapons" rather than "security blankets." Then few days ago when we officially started revving up for football, Bellerophon offered up his preview of the special teams.

How the special teams factor into our coaches game planning is going to be very interesting this upcoming season. It will also be telling and be a crucial part of the "eye ball test" we have been talking about this off-season. When Rick Neuheisel took over a depleted UCLA football program back in 2008, he immediately put a lot of emphasis on special teams. There is now that famous quote from Neuheisel when he channeled Jim Tressel's romanticization of the punt game by saying "punting is winning."

That approach made sense for the first two seasons for number of reasons. We didn't have a lot of talent in our offense. Our OL was a total mess. We were playing with a third string JUCO QB to start the season and then in Neuehisel's second year we started a brand new college QB in Kevin Prince.  The dire situation forced UCLA coaches to put together game plans to scrap and claw their way to few wins by playing football predicated upon fundamentals, solid defense, a "managed" offense around field position.

The whole idea was to keep games close and look for opportunities at the end. It worked at times as it gave us some moments to savor (for ie the games against Tennessee (x2), Texas, Stanford, and Washington).  However, as Achilles noted in his post, the special teams weren't being used to "create breaks" and "momentum" in key games.  As a result, we racked up more than our share of disappointments.

Of course one of the interesting aspects of this situation was that we had the services of a brilliant kicker like Kai Forbath and a great punter in Jeff Locke. These guys were essentially automatic and were available as easy options. This is not to downplay their contributions at all. Believe me; we appreciate guys like Kai and Jeff, when watching other teams fumble around with their kicking game during New Year's Day bowl games. But then again UCLA's absence in those bowl games brings up other painful questions. Anyway, back to our special teams.

I think there is some uncertainty around this unit heading into summer camp. This could potentially help the dynamics around this unit in relation to our game plan compared to last 3 seasons.  This could turn out to be a positive. Let me elaborate some more after the jump.

Kai is gone. Kip Smith, who happened to be a nationally recruited kicker is supposed to be taking over for him at that spot. How good Kip is going to be? No one really knows right now.  The reports that came out about our kicking game during spring report didn't really stand out. The depth chart at PK has an "or" between Kip and Jeff Locke, which I thought was interesting. It appears that coaches have not completely penciled in Kip as the number 1 kicker.

There is also another walk-on kicker on our roster.  His name is Joe Roberts, a red-shirt walk on from Irvine, California.  I have no idea if he is going to be a serviceable kicker, but he is there.

We hope either Kip or Jeff turns out to be okay as PKs. If they can't do it, hope someone like Joe Roberts can become serviceable. Still it is unclear right now whether the coaches are going to have the luxury of someone like Kai who essentially became "automatic" when UCLA offenses drop up around 23-27 yard line range.

Folks have already discussed ad nausea the issue around our PR. I don't think I have to rehash that again. Enough key strokes have been spent on the merits of having Taylor Embree as our PR. That is certainly something to keep an eye on as well. Perhaps the new special teams coach - Angus McClure - will bring a new approach and be open to trying out other options deploying speed and athleticism that can turn games (For i.e. see the splash picture in this post). We will see. It will be refreshing if guys like Jordon James, Josh Smith, and even Jamie Graham can emerge as options as punt returners.

We will also have to keep an eye on our coverage teams. That was an issue our first year when we did not have solid KO. I still have the memory of the Duckies turning the game at the Rose Bowl around a kickoff return to start the second half at the Rose Bowl - two years ago. Really hope we don't have to see that again.

It will be interesting to see how guys playing in special teams handle themselves. Up and down the roster we have more speed and athleticism compared to what we had 3+ years ago. I would think we will have guys who are more physical and faster, in our coverage teams, who will also use the opportunity to garner "attention" from coaches. No, we are not talking about the kind of attention special teams player gets by making silly and boneheaded personal fouls. We are talking about plays like Sean Westgate made through the special teams, which eventually helped him climb the defensive depth chart.

The other issues to keep in mind? We can't forget about our longsnapper.  As noted by Bellorophon we are going to have find a dependable replacement for Christian Yount. Hope Kevin McDermott is up to task. We cannot also forget about the holder (yes, we hear you Mr. Danny Reese). Reese was money last few years and huge part of Kai's success. Bruins will be looking to Jeff Locke or Alex Mascaraneas to step in for Danny.

Going back to the big picture, the main question is if we don't have the  amazing PK like we have had last few seasons, will that make Neuheisel more aggressive with his offensive decision making this upcoming season? If that is the case, it may not be the worst thing when it comes to the overall mindset around game planning. It will at least be something different from last three seasons. It could potentially impact how we decide to attack opposing defenses in contrast with what we saw under the previous offensive coordinator.

All these questions can make anyone anxious. At the same time, I am excited to find out the answers as we continue to roll towards 2011 football season.