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UCLA Football: Special Teams Looks to Step Up

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The specialists had the spotlight today in post-practice interviews.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 10 UCLA at Arizona State Photo by Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Today’s post-practice interviews featured the UCLA Bruins special teams unit. Kicker JJ Molson was the first player interviewed. The media started off asking about the excitement surrounding his last year and how he feels going into it. While we all know that Molson is pretty clutch, he had some tough moments last season when penalties pushed him back, making for longer kicks at the end of his range. He said these situations actually gave him more confidence. Molson added:

My first two seasons I really didn’t have that many long field goal range attempts. So, last year it was kind of cool to see how I would react in those situations. Even though I didn’t make all those I think that I was pretty calm in those situations and I trusted my stroke. So it’s just good to get out there and get those reps...get that experience from far away from the close kicks...the pressure situations.

Molson also talked about the new punter who will handle holding duties, Wade Lees. Lees is actually 31 years old. While Molson said he’s not exactly “a father figure,” he’s more like a big brother and he has enjoyed working with him. All in all, Molson had a lot of positive things to say, even though he has had to adjust to four holders in four years.

Molson also takes his role as an upperclassman seriously. He says:

I think, as a senior, even though I’m a kicker, you kind of hear those things, oh well, a kicker’s not really a leader, For me, one of the things I wanted to focus on this year was kind of pushing our culture and setting the standard. Even though I’m a kicker, if we’re running around, kind of lead by example and see and show the young guys this is what the older guys are doing.

He talked about emulating the culture of the players on the team that are “chasing excellence.” He mentioned that he’s looking to add yards to his range while making a leap from his junior to senior year. He definitely knows the history of the great kickers that came before him, most recently Kai Forbath and Ka’imi Fairbairn, and he is looking to add to that tradition of excellence. This was one well-spoken player.

Next up was punter Wade Lees, hailing from Melbourne, Australia. The first thing he mentioned is how much he and his wife are enjoying their new life in California. He came to UCLA from Maryland. With coaching changes at his previous school and an opening on the UCLA roster, he reached out to the Bruins and ended up with a spot on the team. He and his wife are definitely immersed in the sunny California culture. He also discussed opportunities that UCLA offers with alumni connections and the possibilities after college. He actually already has a bachelor’s and master’s degree and is getting a second master’s degree, this one in education.

Lees discussed being an older team member. He had this to say:

So, when we turn professional back home, we’re actually straight out of high school. So, 17 turning at 18. So, when I turn pro back home I was playing with like 37- and 38-year olds. So, for me, it’s normal. These guys I understand, it’s like culturally, it’s a little bit different but for me it’s cool.

He also says he likes the competition the younger guys give him and it only makes him a better player. Since Australian football is mostly kicking, he’s got some amazing experience to bring to this team.

Lees was asked if they are going to incorporate any of the rugby style he’s used to and he replied:

It just depends on what’s happening from game to game. We’re just gonna obviously just watch film of the game before to see what they’re doing...if they’re rushing or sort of what aspects they’re doing.

Fun fact: Lees can actually punt with both feet.

Long snapper Johnny Den Bleyker was the final interview today and he also discussed being a senior and how fast his four years at UCLA has gone. He seems really happy to have been a part of the program and spoke positively about his experiences with head coach Chip Kelly and JJ Molson.

Den Bleyker mentioned that he has been working on his technique and, while Lees is technically the oldest, he is definitely the “old man” of the group and he has the “best dad hair.” He had been a bit banged up, but has recovered from any lingering injuries.

Den Bleyker also spoke highly of special teams coach Derek Sage and the progress they have been making. He says:

I think the specialists have been stepping up into their roles. We’re seeing a lot more depth not only at specialist positions, but on special teams. I think it’s really helping guys.

He also brought up the energy coach Sage has brought to the team and how “he wants the guys to be focused and dialed in.” He says the overall energy of the camp is higher than years past.

Both Lees and Den Bleyker mention getting downfield for tackles and both are willing to make a play if necessary. Den Bleyker even says he feels like he “a little bit bigger” than he is. So, if he can pull a guy towards him, he will do it if he has to. He actually estimates he has four tackles, two recovered fumbles, and one forced fumble to his name. So, don’t underestimate the defensive power of a long snapper.

Today’s full interviews are courtesy of UCLA Athletics:

Finally this evening, have you signed up for the new SB Nation Fan Pulse yet? The plan is to have our own Bruins Nation Top 25, but we can only do that if we get enough signups. Right now, we need more sign-ups. So, please sign up now if you haven’t already.


Go Bruins!