That's right folks: fall football camp is slightly over three weeks away from getting underway in San Bernardino, and with football just around the corner, we're going to take a look at each positional group in our multi-part fall camp preview. Today we're going to begin with what might end up being the most pivotal unit of the entire team, the special teams squad.
Yes, I said the special teams unit.
For years, the Bruins have taken excellent special teams play for granted, behind the outstanding legs of Justin Medlock, Kai Forbath, Chris Kluwe, Aaron Perez, and Jeff Locke (among others). While not getting the glamour or accolades of the starting quarterback or running back, for years, two of UCLA's most important players have been the punter and kicker. While mocked for the now infamous "punting is winning" quip, Rick Neuheisel had a pretty good point: field position is often key in football, and having a punter who could consistently pin opposing offenses within 10 to 15 yards of their own end zone gave UCLA's often bend-and-sometimes-break inconsistent defenses a lot of field to work with to pick up a stop.
Special teams will very rarely win you a football game. But, a lot of the time, poor special teams can dearly cost you the game. This year, without veteran Jeff Locke leading the unit, the Bruins are going to be entering an adventurous time, with an inexperienced young kicker and an unproven punter.
Sean Covington (FR)
Ka'imi Fairbairn (SO)
Damien Thigpen (RS SR)
Shaq Evans (RS SR)
Christopher Longo (RS SO)
Justin Moreno (RS JR)
|Steven Manfro (RS SO)
|Randall Goforth (SO)
|Peter Hajimihalis (RS SO)
Mitch Johnson (RS FR)
|Devin Fuller (SO)
|Devin Fuller (SO)
|Reed Buce (FR)
|Steven Manfro (RS SO)
Obviously, if Covington falters, the Bruins will be hurting for punting options, but Mora has to have high hopes for a kid who was rated the #3 punter in the country by Scout, and went through former UCLA great Chris Sailer's kicking program. Ka'imi Fairbairn came on stronger as his freshman campaign progressed, and he clearly has Mora's vote of confidence, having been trusted to kick a long FG in terrible, rainy conditions on the road in Palo Alto, with the Pac-12 title on the line (Mora should have gone for the first down, given the distance and conditions, but I digress). So, for now, Fairbairn is not only the starting kicker, but likely to have a slight advantage over Covington to handle kick-off duties, although that should be a close battle, given that Covington blasted 17 touchbacks in 22 kickoffs.
While losing Locke is the most obvious blow, the Bruins also lost veteran long snapper Kevin McDermott to graduation, replacing him with either Longo, Hajimihalis, or Buce, a walk-on long-snapper who worked with long snapping guru (and Chris Sailer colleague) Chris Rubio. Definitely one of the most under-appreciated positions on the field, it's real hard to kick when you don't get the ball cleanly, so UCLA fans have to hope a new long snapper can come in with minimal growing pains. The result if it doesn't happen won't be pretty for UCLA.
On the return game, UCLA looks to go with redshirt senior WR Shaq Evans as the go-to punt returner. In case you missed it, Evans was named a first-team all-conference PR by Athlon Sports. Evans isn't the most explosive return man, but he has steady hands (something that original starting PR Steven Manfro was sorely lacking last season) and put up a respectable 10.6 yards per return last season, with a long of 43 yards. Behind Evans is likely to be a combination of Goforth (16 yard per return last season, long of 36 yards) and Manfro (8.8 yards per return, long of 27 yards). For kick returns, the Bruins get Damien Thigpen back from injury, who was UCLA's top return man last season (26.9 yards per return, long of 55 yards), which will be a major boost. Behind him will be Devin Fuller (18.6 yards per return, long of 36 yards) and Manfro (22.0 yards per return, long of 51 yards), but will be without Kenneth Walker (19.7 yards per return, long of 40 yards), who showed some real flashes of potential last season. Walker will be out for the season, which is more of a blow in the return game than in the WR corps, where the Bruins have a fair amount of depth.
Now, of course, Mora has shown a willingness to play the best players on the roster, regardless of class seniority, so it'll be interesting to see which impact freshman come in to this fall's camp and make enough of an impression to get a shot in the return game. There's some interesting underclassmen (the small and shifty WR Ahmaad Harris, RB Paul Perkins, for example) joining the incoming freshmen (RB Craig Lee, RB/F Jalen Ortiz, WR Darren Andrews) for a shot at the return rotation, so keep an eye out for them in San Bernardino.
Alright folks, that's the first part of our pre-fall camp positional previews. Stay tuned for the next part of our series, which will begin our long look at Lou Spanos' 3-4 defense, the changes to expect this fall, as we get ready for the long-awaited return of college football. Fire away with your thoughts in the thread.