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UCLA-Washington Preview: Looking at Husky Special Teams and Southern Cal's Next Coach?

The Bruins will host the Washington Huskies in a special black-out L.A. Midnight game at the Rose Bowl on Friday night, and they'll be taking on Steve Sarkisian, one of the coaches that is surely one of the front-runners on Pat Haden's shortlist to replace fired head coach Lane Kiffin at Southern Cal. With the Bruins gearing up for the black-out, we preview the Huskies, beginning with a look at their head coach and their special teams unit.

Will we soon be seeing this once again at Heritage Hall?
Will we soon be seeing this once again at Heritage Hall?
Wikipedia / Bobak Ha'Eri

Steve Sarkisian, better known as the "one who got away" to the folks at Heritage Hall, will head on down to Westwood, looking for a big win on a nationally televised black-out L.A. Midnight Friday night game against our #13-ranked Bruins to get his 6-3 Huskies back into the top-25 after falling out following three straight losses to Stanford, Oregon, and Arizona State.

There's not much that needs to be said about Sark's coaching acumen: he arrived in Seattle in 2009 after the Huskies posted an atrocious 0-12 record in Tyrone Willingham's last season as a head coach anywhere and got the Huskies to rebound to 5-7 in his first season, followed by three straight 7-6 seasons, which is pretty impressive considering how much stronger the Pac-12 North has been with a resurgent Stanford Cardinal, the increasingly dominant and national-title contending Oregon Ducks, a tricky Oregon State squad under Mike Riley, and a competitive Cal program (before they fired Tedford to hire Sonny "I Can't Beat a FCS Team" Dykes).  Now, the Huskies are 6-3, with our Bruins, Oregon State, and Washington State left on the schedule, so a 8-4 finish seems likely.

But 8-4 might be the best that Washington fans will ever get out of Sarkisian, as he's widely considered to be Pat Haden's top candidate to replace now-fired head coach Lane Kiffin.  The Huskies are desperate to hold on to Sark, having handed him a raise and contract extension in 2011.  But with a contract that caps out at $2.85 million in 2015, it seems likely that Southern Cal can easily outspend Washington and throw the cash necessary to get Haden's top choice (although it would seem, given the Trojans recent run, that they already have the right man in the job).  While Sarkisian has publicly denied any interest in the Southern Cal job (which doesn't mean much), considering the Huskies will be without senior QB Keith Price and likely without junior RB Bishop Sankey (can't see why he'd stick around when the NFL comes calling), it wouldn't be hard to see why Sark might think this off-season would be the perfect time to return home to Southern Cal.  Don't forget, he's not only a former Pete Carroll assistant at Southern Cal, but he's a former Trojan walk-on athlete (before transferring to BYU) and is from Torrance.

So, don't be surprised to see Sark pull out all the stops in front of a Southern California crowd, and I wouldn't be shocked if Pat Haden was seen around the Rose Bowl this weekend, scouting out and trying to recruit his top coaching candidate back to Heritage Hall.  Mora and the Bruins will need to bring their A-game to take down a Washington team looking for a big road win and a head coach likely auditioning for the Southern Cal job.

Turning to the special teams unit, there isn't much change in the unit, with most of the key players returning from last season, giving the Huskies a measure of stability in special teams.  In the kicking game, last year now-senior Travis Coons handled all of the Huskies' kicking jobs, handing punts (54 punts, 39.8 yards per punt), field goals (9-14, long of 45), and kick-offs.  Going into the season, Coons was hoping to reduce his workload a bit, with freshman Cameron Van Winkle taking over kick-off duties (34 kicks, 60.4 yards per kick-off, long of 61, 11 touchbacks), but with Van Winkle missing the Huskies' last four games due to injury, Coons is once again the Huskies' only leg on the field.  So far, the senior has handled the workload well, posting improved punting (43 punts, 41.7 yards per punt, long of 61, 14 inside the 20), field goal (9-9, long of 46 yards), and kick-off (27 kicks, 59.6 yards per kick, 5 touchbacks) numbers.  So, if the game comes down to a FG, Washington will have a reliable, if unspectacular man ready to go.

As for the return game, the Huskies also return an experienced return man in the punt game while handing kick return duties over to a speedy and shifty true freshman WR.  As for punt returns, sophomore WR Marvin Hall has already matched his poor 2012 output (6 returns, 5.5 yards per return, 33 total yards) in terms of yards, with just half the returns (3 returns, 11.7 yards per return, 35 total yards), but still hasn't showed any big play ability in fielding returns, with no punt return TDs in the two seasons he's had the job.  For the kick-return game though, it's a whole different ball-game, with freshman speedster John Ross III handling the bulk of the kick-return duties.  The shifty return man, who reminds his teammates of Oregon's De'Anthony Thomas, has a track record of big returns in HS and has posted respectable return numbers as a true freshman so far in 2013 (23 returns, 20.3 yards per return, long of 49) and is a real threat to break a long return against the Bruins, so Coach Ulbrich's unit will need to be up to speed on Friday night or the Bruins will find themselves on the back-foot early.

The Bruins have picked themselves up enough to pick up two wins following the back-to-back losses to Stanford and Oregon, but they'll need to keep winning to book a return trip to Palo Alto for the Pac-12 title game, beginning with a chance to make a big impression on national television on Friday night in front of a black-out L.A. Midnight crowd at the Rose Bowl.  It'll be interesting to see how the Bruins come out against the Huskies and Southern Cal's likely next head coach.