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2016 UCLA Football Fall Preview: Molson Will Pick Up Where Fairbairn Left Off

UCLA's Special Teams units will have three positions filled by new starters this season. Who will they be?

JJ Molson kicks a field goal during Spring Practice while Coach Angus McClure looks on.
Joe Piechowski

Special teams. Aside from the offensive line more games are won or lost on the strength of special teams than probably any other individual unit.

Several of the biggest losses of the Jim Mora Era would have been different if our special teams players had come through. That doesn’t excuse the rest of the team because, in football, when a team loses, it’s truly a team loss.

But, special teams can snatch a victory from the jaws of defeat or vice-versa, depending on how the special teams players played.

This year, three key special teams roles will be filled by newcomers. And, that’s important.

Obviously, Ka’imi Fairbairn is gone, but so are punter Matt Mengel and long snapper Christopher Luongo. The only special teams guys that are returning are, well, the return guys.

Here’s a look at the projected Special Teams depth chart:

Kicker Punter Long Snapper Punt Returner Kick Returner

JJ Molson (Fr)

Adam Searl (Sr)

Johnny Den Bleyker (Fr)

Ishmael Adams (Sr)

Ishmael Adams (Sr)

Stefan Flintoff (RSo)

Andrew Strauch (RFr)

Austin Kent (Fr)


Stephen Johnson (So)
Mossi Johnson (Jr)

Randall Goforth (RSr)

Let’s look at each of the positions.


Ka’imi Fairbairn left some pretty big shoes to fill.

Not only did Fairbairn win the Lou Groza award as the best kicker in college football, he also set a school record with a 60-yard field goal against Cal. Yet, somehow, he was not the All-Conference selection for kicker. He finally seemed to hit his stride after struggling his first three seasons.

As the Bruins head to camp, there are three kickers on the roster. Stefan Flintoff is a redshirt sophomore from Loyola High School who did not see any action last season. Andrew Strauch will be a freshman after redshirting last season.

But, expect the job to be won by true freshman J.J. Molson who seems to be enjoying the Southern California weather as a nice change of pace from the frigid Canadian winters. Molson was an early enrollee and participated in Spring Practice.

On the basis of his performance in Spring, Molson certainly appeared to be the best of the UCLA kickers, which makes sense since Chris Sailer Kicking rated him as the #2 kicker in North America in the 2016 recruiting class. I’m expecting Molson to win at least one game for us this season with a late field goal.

In Spring, he was easily and consistently hitting long field goals with plenty of distance to spare. While he may be a freshman college kicker this year, I have a hunch that Ka’imi’s school record may not stand for long with Molson around.

Don’t be surprised, though, if Coach Mora plays coy and refuses to acknowledge Molson has won the spot. Mora doesn’t like his guys to feel comfortable in camp. I’d be shocked if anyone but Molson lines up for the first field goal of the season.

That said, it’s always possible that one of the other kickers could be given the kickoff duties, allowing Molson to concentrate on putting the ball through the uprights.

Long Snapper

Well, this is where things start to get interesting. There is only one long snapper on the roster and that’s incoming freshman Johnny Den Bleyker from Moreau Catholic in Fremont, CA. I’m not sure who the backup will be, but let’s just hope that he stays healthy so we don’t have to worry about that.


This is the special teams slot where there could actually be a position battle. Senior Adam Searl, who was reinstated to the team prior to the start of Spring Practice, returns and is joined by true freshman Austin Kent, who comes to UCLA from Charlotte, NC.

There wasn’t as much of an emphasis placed on punting as there was on the placekicking at the practices I saw this Spring.

So, it’s completely possible that the competition here could be wide open. But, given UCLA’s punting struggles the past few seasons, I just don’t see Searl retaining the job for long even if he wins it in camp.

Kent should be good enough, though, to make sure Kenny Walker never lines up in punt formation again.


Ishmael Adams is back for another season and, perhaps, it was his explosiveness as a return guy that led to Coach Mora asking Ish to switch to the offensive side of the ball this Spring.

Look for the Johnsons, Stephen or Mossi, to join Ish for kickoff returns while Randall Goforth could see some time as the team’s punt returner.

Of course, it’s always possible that one of the incoming freshman could work his way onto either return team by working his tail off in practice.

That wraps up our look at the Special Teams as the Bruins head into Fall Camp. Stay tuned all week as we continue our UCLA Football Fall Preview.

Go Bruins!!!