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Spaulding Spring Football Preview: Examining the Bruins' Kick and Punt Returners

Spring football is coming up quickly, with the return to Spaulding Field coming on April 2. As we get ready for what we hope will be an exciting (and successful) second year of the Jim Mora era in Westwood, Bruins Nation previews what we expect to see at spring practice, breaking it down by individual position grouping. This morning we begin with the first part of our nine part spring football preview, focusing in on the men responsible for the return game.

Can shifty playmaker Damien Thigpen return 100% and make an impact on UCLA's kick-return game?
Can shifty playmaker Damien Thigpen return 100% and make an impact on UCLA's kick-return game?
Gary A. Vasquez-US PRESSWIRE

Now that we have wrapped up our three-part depth chart projection for both this upcoming 2013 season and the following 2014 season (projections for each available here: special teams, defense, and offense), we now take a look at each individual positional grouping, breaking the team down into nine components: the kick/punt returners, the kicking game (kickers, punters, and long snappers), the defensive secondary, the linebacker corps, the defensive line, followed by the offensive line, receiving corps, the running backs, and finally, the quarterback situation. This morning, we take a look at the guys we'll be watching in spring ball in terms of our return game, something that has been decidedly average in recent years (well, mediocre under Neuheisel, when Stone Hands Embree was fielding punts).

Right now, this is how the return game projects heading into spring camp:

Kick Returners
Punt Returners
Damien Thigpen (RS SR) Shaq Evans (RS SR)
Kenneth Walker (SO) Randall Goforth (SO)
Steven Manfro (RS SO) Devin Fuller (SO)
Devin Fuller (SO) Steven Manfro (RS SO)
Shaq Evans (RS SR)
Jordon James (RS JR)

Obviously, for the kick returners, the biggest question will be how well Damien Thigpen returns from his season-ending injury from last season. Mora used a lot of options last season, with 9 different players fielding kick-offs (Thigpen, Fuller, Manfro, Walker, Evans, James, Ricky Marvray, Roosevelt Davis, and Johnathan Franklin), but no one was able to take one all the way (the longest return was a 55-yard return by Thigpen).

Statistically (complete 2012-13 season statistics available at the official site, confirmed by Yahoo! Sports), the best return man was Thigpen, who fielded 14 kicks for 376 total yards, which comes out to a 26.9 yards per return average. Manfro followed behind, fielding 8 kicks for 176 total yards, or a 22.0 yards per return average. Devin Fuller, for his hyped big play ability (which is much more apparent when he operates out of the slot on offense), fielded 9 kicks for only 167 yards, coming out to a 18.6 yards per return average. Kenneth Walker showed a lot of promise for a true freshman (7 kicks returned for 138 total yards, or 19.7 yards per average), so it'll be interesting to see whether Mora keeps using him in the return game and if he's able to improve on last season's numbers. As a point of comparison, Josh Smith, UCLA's last dedicated return man returned 49 kick-offs for 1,132 yards total (a 23.1 yard average), with a longest return of 78 yards (but no return TDs); which means Thigpen projects better than Smith did in 2011.

All-in-all, I'd project Thigpen (assuming he is healthy) and Walker as the two top return men for next season's roster, with Manfro just behind (his hands are much more steady on kick returns than they were on punt returns).

Turning to the punt returners, Shaq Evans displayed not only sure hands, but was responsible for the longest punt return of the year (43 yards). However, his average wasn't the best: he fielded 8 punts for 85 total yards, a 10.6 yards per return average. Steven Manfro, who entered the 2012 season as UCLA's top punt return man on the depth chart was even worse: besides the inability to hold on to the ball at key moments, he returned 15 punts for 132 total yards, or an average of 8.8 yards per return. Not exactly world-beating. But, he was still a vast improvement on Stone Hands Taylor Embree, who returned a dozen punts in 2011 for only 57 yards (a paltry 4.8 yards per return average). Devin Fuller didn't see much action returning punts, fielding only 2 for 6 total yards (a sad 3 yards per return). The best return man, statistically, although in very limited action appeared to be Randall Goforth, who returned only 3 punts, but gained 48 yards total, for an average of 16.0 yards per return. However, most of those yards came on a 36 yard return.

Which means, it appears likely Mora will stay with Evans, the steady redshirt senior WR, in punt return duties, unless one of the heralded underclassmen is able to display solid hands and an ability to get north-south (a problem Embree couldn't grasp, among others) and churn out return yards. It'll be interesting to see how the punt return battle plays out, because there doesn't seem to be an out-right favorite to start, as there is with the kick return game, and it wouldn't be surprising to see one of the redshirt freshmen (say, shifty Ahmaad Harris) given a run at punt return duties, in an effort to preserve Goforth and Evans for what seems likely to be starting roles at CB and WR, respectively.

Stay tuned for the next part of BN's nine-part positional previews as we gear up and get excited for the return of Jim Mora and our Bruins to Spaulding Field, in less than two weeks. Fire away in the thread.