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UCLA Football Preview: UC Berkeley Has a Secret Weapon on Special Teams

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Can the Bruins contain kick returns and win the field position battle?

NCAA Football: California at Arizona Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

This Saturday, the UCLA Bruins take on the UC Berkeley Golden Bears in the first game of the season where we can legitimately expect a win. After hitting a stride Saturday and only losing to the Washington Huskies by a touchdown, the improvements on both sides of the ball are definitely enough to push the Bruins to their first win of the year. But I’m reserving some of my judgements until I see this level of play show up on the field again, so we know it wasn’t just a fluke.

While we probably aren’t going bowling this year, I hope the players are learning a lot about grit, industriousness, and what it means to pull together when times are tough. To put things in perspective, we haven’t won a game on the road since 2016 (and head coach Chip Kelly hasn’t won a game at all since 2016). Needless to say, a win this weekend will make a huge difference in the morale of the team and possibly change the direction the program goes for the rest of the season.

Let’s take a look at the coaching staff we’re facing this weekend.

Head Coach

Head coach Justin Wilcox is in year two of coaching the Bears, taking over from Sonny Dykes, who went 4-19 during his tenure as the Bears’ head coach. It looked like they had found the answers to their prayers when they won three in a row to start 2017, which including games against North Carolina and Ole Miss. However, the end results did not turn out as UC Berkeley fans had hoped, as they ended up 5-7 on the season. Many of their conference losses were by a touchdown or less, which gave many hope that the Bears were back on the rise.

Wilcox has held a number of coaching posts in his 17-year coaching career, most of which was as a defensive coordinator. Prior to his hiring at UC Berkeley, he was at Boise State, Tennessee, Washington, Southern Cal, and Wisconsin. His roots are solid in the Pac-12, as he is a graduate of the University of Oregon where he played safety and cornerback from 1996-1999.

Offensive Coordinator

Also in his second year is offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin. He has been coaching since 1994, all of which was spent with three teams. Most recently, he was at Eastern Washington as their head coach. Prior to that he spent one year as the Central Washington head coach, four years as the Eastern Washington offensive coordinator, and nine years as the Central Washington quarterbacks coach.

The Pacific Northwest is definitely home for Baldwin, where he played quarterback for Central Washington from 1990-93. The Bears’ offense is still trying to replace quarterback Jared Goff, who left for the NFL after the 2015 season, and Baldwin’s quarterbacks have had decent ratings since he’s been there. They are ranked 67th in total offense; however, they are 36th in third down conversion percentage. Baldwin’s offense has definitely showed some improvement leading into year two.

Defensive Coordinator

Tim DeRuyter, also in his second year with the Bears, has brought some much needed change to the defense. Sonny Dykes’ teams were a mess on the defensive side of the ball. So, really any change was bound to be positive, but in 2017 the UC Berkeley defense gave up over 2 touchdowns fewer per game than they had in 2016. Their defensive metrics were also improved in almost every category as compared to their 2016 numbers, especially when it came to big play prevention and a red zone defense that ranked 44th in points allowed per trip inside the red zone.

Before serving the Bears as defensive coordinator, DeRuyter was the head coach at Fresno State, assistant head coach at Texas A&M and Air Force, and defensive coordinator at Air Force, Nevada, Ohio, and Navy.

Special Teams

Junior kicker Greg Thomas in 100% on PAT attempts and he has made four of five field goals, missing one 40+ yard attempt in week one in their win against North Carolina. His long was a 44-yard attempt in week three and his average is in the mid-to-high 30’s.

Their team punting average is just under 39 yards, with redshirt junior Steven Coutts handling most of those duties. His personal average is just over 41 yards, but he can’t hold a candle to our Stefan Flintoft, who is ranked fifth in the nation with an average punt of almost 48 yards.

On kick returns, the Bears have a skilled specialist to watch out for. Junior defensive back Ashtyn Davis is ranked 12th in the country in kickoff returns, with 308 yards in 11 returns. When you look at kick off returns overall, the Bears are number 16 in the country, averaging over 26 yards per carry.

Senior wide receiver Vic Wharton III has been taking most of the punt returns, but he’s not nearly as dangerous as Davis, coming in at 54th in the country with an average return of 6.2 yards.

Saturday is going to be about special teams and field position, when you think about skilled players like Davis. We have to be able to pin them deep and keep them there, and not allow them to start drives midfield for easy touchdowns. We’re lucky to have Flintoft on our sideline, but it doesn’t matter how deep he punts if we can’t contain their returner.

Analysis

After researching their coaching staff and special teams, I’m pretty confident in saying we’ve got them beat. I don’t see Justin Wilcox out-coaching Chip Kelly and our special teams unit is second to none. The secret weapon they have on kick returns will be a non-issue if our guys do their job and contain Davis.


Go Bruins!