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UCLA Football 2014 Pre-Season Preview: Special Teams

Heading into the 2014 season, UCLA seemed set at kicker and punter, but now must rely on a JC transfer as their starting punter. The Bruins are still looking to solidify the punt and kick returner spots.

Bob Stanton-USA TODAY Sports

Because I am a thorough and diligent blogger, I completed this special teams preview on Friday morning. I finished it up and figured I had my weekend free. Then came the news that Sean Covnington, our punter for two seasons, had abruptly left the program and we had offered and received a commitment from a JC punter named Matt Mengel.

There is a blogging irony here, which had nothing at all to do with the football team (OR DOES IT???). Over a week ago I complained/groused about the fact that I wrote about special teams in the spring and there really wasn't anything new to write. At least whoever was blogging about the other units on the team had the incoming freshmen to work into their posts. Because I am a metaphoric professional at this (it's metaphorical because "professional" implies some sort of financial renumeration, which in this case is non-existent because writing about the special teams for the Bruins Nation community is simply a labor of love for me), I managed to bang out a 1,400 word post about UCLA's kicking game without having anything at all to say about them. In all seriousness, I could have just posted the depth chart grid and left it at that.

So maybe there is a bit of blogging karma going on here. I complained that nothing had changed since Spring and then -- BAM -- the Covington news breaks. Right after we heard the news, I got an email from Bellerophon that read, "Well, at least now you have something to write about." Which, if you know Bellerephon, was sort of funny and if you don't, might have come off as eerie and slightly menacing. Actually, when I think about it, if you don't know Bellerephon it would seem sort of funny, but if you do know B, it's both eerie and slightly menacing.

I'll get to the Covingtion/Mengel thing below. But first I want to touch on the sometimes-overlooked importance of special teams in general. I’ll begin by quoting myself quoting the maxim that old ball coaches used to spew at their players (while also denying them water breaks and calling them pussies for complaining about headaches and dizziness):

"Pay attention to the kicking game -- because it's there that the breaks are made."

That’s a total cliché, of course, and I loathe cliché. But it’s pretty much true, right?

Think about last year’s game against Oregon. The Ducks went three and out, then we scored first on our first drive, a Brett Hundley four-yard touchdown run capping off a drive that began on our own 38. I watched that game in a Century City bar (for the record, Smith House has L.A.’s largest selection of beers on tap – or so they say) and for a minute was feeling pretty good. High fives all around our table.

We kickoff and a few plays later, Oregon’s facing a 4th and 14 at their own 26. Let me tell you exactly what was going through my mind:

"We held the Ducks on their first drive and drove right down and scored. We’re going to hold them again and if we go in for another touchdown, maybe just maybe we’ll have them on the ropes." I’m thinking all this while their lining up to punt and I’m also thinking about all the beat downs Oregon handed us during the years immediately pre-Jim Mora.

So, what does Ducks Head Coach Mark Helfrich due?

He fakes the punt, running Rodney Hardrick right up the gut. Our line parted like the Red effin’ Sea, Hardrick picked up 66 yards for a first and goal, giving Brent Musberger his best on air orgasm since Jenn Sterger. Let’s take a look:

No, not a loot at Jenn Sterger, a look at Oregon’s fake punt:

The Black Mamba scored two plays later from the 1-yard line, the game was tied and we ended up losing 42-14. Would we have won the game if we held the Ducks on that early drive, scored and gone up 14-0? I don’t know. But there are two points to be made. One, Oregon didn’t respect us very much last year because they were perfectly willing to risk giving us great position and maybe going down two scores to us and two, aggressive special teams can turn around games and set a tone for your entire team.

In other words, "punting is not winning."

Punter Kicker Kick Returner Punt Returner Long Snapper

Matt Mengel (JR)

Ka'imi Fairbairn (JR)

Ishmael Adams(JR)

Ishmael Adams (JR)

Christopher Longo (RS JR)

Adam Searl(SO)

Mitch Johnson (RS SO)

Devin Fuller(JR) Randall Goforth (SO) ???*

Steven Manfro (RS SO) Kenny Walker(JR) *see comments below

Which is not to say that having a good punter is not important. It is important. Your punter is, when you think about it, part of your defense. A great punter can turn around field position with one kick and can consistently keep opponents looking at a long field for their offenses. It’s funny, there were times during the prior two regimes when it seemed as if Chris Kluwe and later Jeff Locke were the best player on our team. Unfortunately, we weren’t good enough anywhere else on the field to take advantage of having guys who were, at the end of the day, NFL-caliber punters.

I don’t know if our new punter, Matt Mengel is an NFL caliber punter or not. All I know is what former UCLA kicker/Bruin for life/kicking-punting guru Chris Sailer writes about Mengel:

Matthew is a big time prospect.  One of the strongest legs in the nation.  Has perhaps more potential than anyone in the country.  Field goals show tremendous range.  Kickoffs are ready for D1 right now.  Also shows great punting potential.  I look forward to seeing what the future holds for Matthew.  If you need someone to step in and play and/or challenge at all 3 positions, Matt is that guy!  Great prospect.  OFFER NOW!!! Huge pick up for CAL!

That all sounds really good. On paper. (I printed it out). But football is played on grass.

If Sailer is right about Mengel, then maybe he’s good enough.

When I say "good enough" I mean that Mengel will hopefully not be a liability on a championship-level team. I wrote a number of times last year about what I call "margin for error." A team that’s just loaded with talent like an Alabama most seasons has a pretty good margin for error. This means that they can play below their potential and still beat most teams. UCLA is not there yet. Our margin for error is smaller. We can’t afford to play too far below our potential and still expect to win, though every team is going to have a bad day and still needs to find a way to score more points. The question is, does losing Covington and replacing him with Mengel shrink our margin for error? Let's hope not.

(My brother-in-law put this in perspective last night, sort of. I was telling him and the rest of the fam that UCLA had lost a starter and when I said it was Covington he laughed and said he was glad it was Covington and not one of the football players. Make of that what you will.)

Our returning kicker is Ka’imi Fairbairn. He was 14-21 last season on field goals and converted 59 of 60 extra points. Fairbairn scored 101 points in 2013. I was surprised to see that he was 16-22 in 2012, because I thought he was worse as a freshman, he actually scored 104 points in 2012. I think my feelings are more negative about Fairbairn’s performance than the stats show, because he hasn’t demonstrated a knack for kicking the longer field goals. The stats I’m looking at don’t indicate the length of the field goals he missed, but I suspect they were the longer ones. Without doing a national survey, I feel like Fairbairn is an average to above average college kicker; the kind of kid we see running out to kick an end-of-the-game field goal for most teams, even the most talented teams. I think that Fairbairn just feels a little off to UCLA fans because we’ve had some really good kickers through the years. This includes Kai Forbath, who kicked for us from 2006 – 2010.

(As an aside I have a confession to make. When I was looking up the statistics, I thought that Forbath immediately preceded Fairbairn. He didn’t. In 2011, Kip Smith was 2-3 on field goals, Locke was 203 and Tyler Gonzalez was 7-11. Now that I think about it, I remember it. But, really, I have apparently blocked the whole 2011 season out of my mind. Fairbairn, I’ll have you know, is better than Kip Smith.)

While we’re set at punter/kicker and seem pretty solid, who will return kicks for us is less obvious.

Do you know the last time we ran back a kick off for a touchdown? It was Matthew Slater with an 89 yard score against Arizona State in 2007. It’s been even longer since we ran back a punt for a touchdown; the last one was Maurice Drew before he changed his name, an 81 yard return versus Cal Berkeley in 2005. 2002?!?! Yes, 2005. Recalling Slater and Jones-Drew (both NFL players, by the way) does make a point: having great kick returners is a dangerous weapon for a football team. When Slater and MJD were running back our kicks and punts, they were factors to be reckoned with for our opponents. In most of those years we weren’t very good, but those guys kept us from being that much worse.

In 2013, Steven Manfro ran back the most kickoffs for us, averaging 24.8 yards per return on 18 returns. Ishmael Adams was much more effective when he took on that role, averaging 35 yards per return. That’s a huge difference, giving Brett Hundley and Co. a ten-yard boost for each possession on average. In my Spring special teams depth chart, I had Adams listed as first string with Devin Fuller behind him. Manfro was third on that depth chart. I have nothing at this point to base any changes on, so it reads the same for now. But that comes with a caveat, as I expect the coaches to take a long look at a lot of guys during the fall and perhaps even an incoming freshmen will work his way into the mix. If I had my choice, Myles Jack would run back the kickoffs.

Our punt returner in 2013 was Shaq Evans, who is now with the New York Jets. Based on what I read going into Spring practice I had Adams on top of the punt return depth chart with Randall Goforth and Kenny Walker on the list as well. I don’t have any information that would change that; I’ll just say that I would not at all be shocked to see any of these three or Manfro returning punts, nor would I be shocked if some other player worked his way into the mix. Overall, we haven’t seen the likes of Slater or Jones-Drew running back our punts and kickoffs for a long time and it would really improve our margin for error if we found a couple of home run hitters to fill those spots this year, particularly since 2014 is our all in, go for the championship year.

I presume Christopher Longo will still be our long snapper and that Jerry Neuheisel (not shown in the depth chart, nothing personal) will be our holder. Both did a consistently good job last year and Neuheisel even has the potential to be a weapon because as a quarterback he has the ability to make plays on fakes or even a bad snap.