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2019 UCLA Football Fall Preview: Rebuilding the Special Teams

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The Bruins were bad on special teams last year, but it wasn’t really the fault of the specialists themselves.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 10 UCLA at Arizona State
JJ Molson returns for his senior year as the Bruins’ placekicker.
Photo by Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

One of the things which I enjoy doing as part of Bruins Nation is taking a look back on what we may have predicted in the past to see how close we were in our predictions. While pretty no one predicted that the UCLA Bruins would be as bad as they were last season in their first season under Chip Kelly, our Fall Special Teams Preview last year really missed the mark. All you have to do is go back and re-read the headline “Special Teams Will Be Strong for the Bruins” to know how far I missed it with that one.

Special teams was especially challenging for the Bruins last year. The funny thing is that it really didn’t have to do much with the play of the specialists as both JJ Molson and Stefan Flintoft were generally pretty good and, when they weren’t, there were usually outside forces that made their job harder for them, such as penalties forcing Molson to try a field goal from a longer distance than he would have been kicking from if there wasn’t a penalty.

So, in many ways, the Bruins will need to rebuild their special teams. Special teams Coordinator Roy Manning has left the coaching staff and Derek Sage has added that title. Hopefully, Sage can instill some discipline amongst all eleven special teams players on the field at any given time.

Molson is now a senior and, while his accuracy slipped to 73.6% last season from 81% in 2017, part of that has to do with the fact that he made fewer attempts in 2018. He missed five of his 19 attempts last season while he missed four of 21 attempts in 2019. So, he remained pretty consistent, especially when you consider that three of his misses were attempts of 50 yards or more and his other two misses were from 44 yards and 47 yards. He was perfect on all attempts under 44 yards.

The big question on special teams is: “Who will be the starting punter?” After Stefan Flintoft graduated last year, the only punter on the roster was his cousin Colin Flintoft. That said, Chip Kelly has brought in two other guys to compete for the job. The first was Carson Olivas. Olivas is a transfer student who played last season at Bakersfield College where he averaged 41.5 yards per punt on 111 punts over two seasons with longs of 71 yards in 2017 and 56 yards in 2018. At this point, I consider him to be the front-runner for the job.

The second guy who has joined the team is graduate transfer Wade Lees. The Australian native comes to Westwood after playing the last three seasons for the Maryland Terrapins where he averaged just exactly 40 yards per punt over three seasons with longs of 50 yards in 2016, 64 yards in 2017 and 67 yards in 2018.

While I think the regular punter will be either Olivas or Flintoft, I won’t be surprised to see Chip use Lees to mix things up when he wants to mix things up for opponents since Lees has primary punted rugby-style at Maryland.

Johnny Den Bleyker returns fo his senior year and, barring unforeseen events, he should be the Bruins’ long snapper.

Look for Darnay Holmes to be returning kickoffs again this season with Demetric Felton joining him again. This tandem accounted for all of UCLA’s kickoff returns last season.

Lastly, with Adarius Pickett is gone, expect Holmes and Kyle Philips to share the bulk of the punt return duties since the duo ended up taking just over half of the punt returns last year.

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

2019 UCLA Football Projected Special Teams Depth Chart

Kicker Punter Long Snapper Punt Returner Kick Returner
Kicker Punter Long Snapper Punt Returner Kick Returner
JJ Molson (Jr) Carson Olivas (Jr) Johnny Den Bleyker (Sr) Darnay Holmes (Jr) Darnay Holmes (Jr)
Quentin Wallace (Fr) Wade Lees (Gr) Koby Walsh (RJr) Kyle Phillips (So) Demtric Felton (R-Jr)
Nicolas Barr-Mira (Fr) Colin Flintoft (R-Fr) Jack Landherr IV (Fr)


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


Go Bruins!!!