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2017 UCLA Football Fall Preview: The Bruins Need More Consistency on Special Teams

A more experienced unit should improve the outlook on Special Teams.

NCAA Football: Stanford at UCLA Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

Last season, UCLA special teams were a problem. These issues would have been more noticeable if it hadn’t been overshadowed by the problems the offense had moving the football.

A lot of the special teams has to do with the fact that the Bruins went from having a solid senior in Ka’imi Fairbairn to having a true freshman in JJ Molson as the team’s placekicker. Molson only made 60% of his field goal attempts. He hit 77% of his attempts inside the 40-yard line, but was just 2 of 7 from more than 40 yards.

That’s problematic for the Bruins considering that head coach Jim Mora has a conservative NFL mindset and is much quicker to trot out the field goal unit than he should be at the college level.

The good news is that Molson should be better as a sophomore this year.

But placekicking was just the start of the special teams issues.

UCLA also had issues punting. Austin Kent, who was also a freshman last season, initially won the starting job, but, after averaging less than 28 yards per punt on five punts against Washington State, Kent lost the job to Stefan Flintoff.

This year’s theme on special teams, for the most part, will be experience. Molson, Flintoff and Kent all have some experience under their belt now and, hopefully, that experience will bring more consistency and stability on special teams.

I’m expecting Kent and Flintoff to battle for the starting punter spot, considering that they both finished last season pretty close statistically. Flintoff has the edge here, though, because of Kent’s performance in the Washington State game.

Let’s look at this year’s projected depth chart.

UCLA Football Special Teams Projected Depth Chart

Kicker Punter Long Snapper Punt Returner Kick Returner
Kicker Punter Long Snapper Punt Returner Kick Returner
JJ Molson (So) Stefan Flintoff (RJr) Johnny Den Bleyker (So) Adarius Pickett (Sr) Mossi Johnson (Sr)
Andrew Strauch (RSo) Austin Kent (So) Koby Walsh (So) Stephen Johnson (Jr) Jordan Lasley (RJr)
Crawford Pierson (RFr)

Johnny Den Bleyker also returns as the long snapper.

On the return teams, look for Adarius Pickett to take over punt return duties from Ishmael Adams who graduated and signed with the Rams. Pickett returned 8 punts last year, which was second on the team behind Adams. Pickett averaged 10.13 yards per punt return last season which was skewed by the fact that his longest return was 35 yards. That said, even without the one long return, Pickett’s average was still twice as much as Adams.

The only spot that could be up for grabs would be the kickoff returner since the only Bruin with more than 3 kickoff returns last season was Adams. Now, that could certainly fall to Pickett, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see either Mossi Johnson or Jordan Lasley returning kickoffs.

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!!!