Football coaches haven't always been innovators. There was a time when they all work too-tight Bike shorts that left nothing (or not enough) to the imagination. They all had buzz cuts and thought water breaks during practice was for pussies.
And they all clung to the same cliches, reminding their teams to "pay attention to the kicking game -- because it's there that the breaks are made."
Well, times change. Coaches where clothes that fit, for one thing. And not only do they let their teams have water breaks, they ply them with chemically-enhanced fluids designed by scientists to maximize performance On the field, teams no longer run on first and second down and throw on third. (Hang on, I'm having a Karl Dorrell flashback.) But somethings remain the same: a key play on special teams can turn a game around.
So, let's take a look at UCLA's specialists heading into spring practice:
|Punter||Kicker||Kick Returner||Punt Returner||Long Snapper|
|Devin Fuller(JR)||Randall Goforth (SO)||Reed Buce (SO)|
|Steven Manfro(RS SO)||Kenny Walker (JR)|
I'm going to be honest with you all right now. I actually had no idea who our backup punter and kickers were. But I read the roster and went over it with a friend who actually pays attention to stuff like "back up punter" so if I got anything wrong blame him.
Punter Sean Covington replaced Jeff Locke who went to the Minnesota Vikings where he replaced Chris Kluwe who is currently being blackballed by the NFL for not being a robot. Covington actually had a pretty good freshman season, averaging 41.9 yards per kick while dropping 18 of his 54 punts inside the 20 yard line. I have no idea who Adam Searl is, as far as I'm concerned if Sean Covington gets hurt we might as well let Brett Hundley punt or better yet just stop punting and just go for it on fourth down until Covington gets better. Seriously, if Covington can't go, let's dress out Abby Dahlkemper and if you don't know who she is - you should.
Place kicker Ka'imi Fairbairn replaced Kai Forbarth (and, honestly, am I the only person who keeps confusing their names, or at least parts of their names? Can't we get a kicker with a regular name, like Bjorn Merten? Did you know that "Bjorn Merten" was Dutch for "wide right"? Do you even know who Bjorn Merten is?) and that didn't go as smoothly as the Locke-to-Covington conversion. Fairbairn hit on 14 of his 21 of his field goal attempts last season, going 9 for 12 from inside 39 yards. That's not bad, but Fairbairn was a bit more unreliable from longer distances and hasn't demonstrated any kind of range. This is not a good thing going into a season where UCLA has a chance to win all of its games.
See, a placekicker is sort of like a closer in baseball. Every team has one. But the difference between winning a championship and falling short actually could come down to hitting a last second field goal, just like a baseball season might come down to holding your opponent in the bottom of the ninth. There's a reason why David Berg meant so much to John Savage's team last year during their national title run. But, despite the presence of Mitch Johnson on the roster, we're going to live and hopefully not die with Fairbairn. Let's hope he increases his accuracy from distance because it would be a shame for the season to come down to a 48-yard-field goal.
One of the great things about a football season is that sometimes you get surprised, a player you weren't expecting emerges and makes a difference. One player who surprised me last year was Ish Adams. It seems like years since we had someone who could return a kickoff. Like since Maurice Jones-Drew or Matthew Slater. Then, all of a sudden, Adams emerged as a weapon about halfway through last season. It was like Jim Mora got sick of Stephen Manfro or whoever was trying to run back kicks, asked for volunteers and Adams raised his hand. The result was about 10 yards more per return than we were getting out of Manfro. I predict Adams breaks a kick for six at some point next season.
Last year, Shaq Evans handled punt returns and he was an improvement over Taylor "Fair Catch No Matter What" Embree. Evans has graduated and I'm guessing that someone will emerge out of Adams, Randall Goforth and Kenny Walker.
One other big change at special teams is a new coach. Jeff Ulbrich has moved from linebackers to defensive coordinator and has been replaced by Mike Tuiasosopo. Coach Tui is expected to take over on special teams as well, though my friend who knows more than me thinks that special teams are sort of coached by committee.
For the most part, UCLA's special teams in 2013 were good, but not great. Who can forget Oregon burning us with a big fake punt? For 2014 to become a special season, the special teams will have to become more special than they were a year ago.