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2015 UCLA Football Fall Preview: Special Teams

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The UCLA Bruins return an experienced and reliable group of specialists for the 2015-16 football season.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

With fall football practice just a day away, we wind up our series of positional previews by looking at the Bruins' special teams. If you've missed any of the preceding previews, you can find each article in the series in the Bruins Nation 2015 UCLA Football Fall Preview.

As gbruin is fond of saying, "special teams win games." Well, that may not be exactly what he says, but it's probably what he's thinking because it's true. But it's also true that special teams lose games, and for most of us, that's the way we too often look at the contributions of our specialists. Failures are magnified while competence is largely ignored. Ka'imi Fairbairn, the Bruins' leading scorer last year, is more likely to be remembered for a crucial late game 50-yard miss in a two-point loss to Utah than for any of his successful field goals during the season.

For specialists, competence can result in anonymity. How many of you can name UCLA's long snapper? (Hint: He's a redshirt senior and has played in every game in the past two seasons.) Or how about this: the percentage of punts by backup punter Adam Searl last season exceeded the percentage of snaps taken by backup quarterback Jerry Neuheisel, yet every member of this community can identify Neuheisel from a photo, but the same can't be said of Searl. Honestly, how many of you would be able to identify Adam Searl from a photograph?

Matt Mengel

Photo Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

By the way, that's a photo of Matt Mengel, not Adam Searl.

Fortunately, the Bruins return an experienced group of specialists for the 2015 football season. For the most part, we know the strengths and weaknesses of these players. We know that this is a group of players that are likely to prove reliable rather than spectacular. This group of Bruin specialists may be unlikely to win games, but they're also unlikely to lose them.

Before looking at the projected depth chart for our specialists as we head to fall training camp, let's remember that there are a lot of players who fill important roles on special teams that won't be mentioned on the depth chart or in this preview. Foremost among these are the coverage guys--the players who as a group get even less attention that the specialists discussed below but who nevertheless contribute significantly to the performance of our special teams. In that regard, the loss of special teams star Ryan Hofmeister needs to be mentioned. He won't be easy to replace.

Kicker Punter Kick Returner Punt Returner Long Snapper

Ka'imi Fairbairn (Sr.)

Matt Mengel (Sr.)

Ishmael Adams (RJr.)

Ishmael Adams (RJr.)

Christopher Longo (RSr.)

Stefan Flintoft (RFr.)

Adam Searl (RSo.)

Mossi Johnson (So.)

Steven Manfro (RSr.)

Steven Manfro (RSr.)


Kicker

Ka'imi Fairbairn

Photo Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Ka'imi Fairbairn has been the kicker in each of Jim Mora's previous three seasons, and he'll make it four out of four this year. He showed moderate improvement in 2014, converting 18 of his 22 field goal attempts to place him third in the Pac-12 in field goal efficiency. His 29 straight field goals from 35 yards or less demonstrates Fairbairn's remarkable accuracy from short and medium range, but there's nothing in Fairbairn's history as UCLA's kicker that would lead anyone to believe that he's a good bet to convert a 50+ yard field goal attempt in the last few seconds of a game. Fairbairn is accurate and he's consistent, but he's not an elite kicker. On the other hand, if he's used properly, he'll produce good results.

It's worth noting that Fairbairn has done a terrific job on kickoffs. Last season, 50 of Fairbairn's 80 kickoffs went for touchbacks. By contrast, only 19 of UCLA's opponent's kickoffs resulted in touchbacks.

Redshirt freshman Stefan Flintoft will be the backup kicker this season. Barring injury to Fairbairn, it's highly unlikely that Flintoft will see the field this year.

Punter

Matt Mengel

Photo Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

I think it's fair to say that Matt Mengel was adequate in his first season with the Bruins. In spite of the unusual circumstances that brought him to Westwood and landed him the starting job, Mengel produced acceptable results. He finished fifth in the conference in net punting average (37.9 yards/punt) and eighth in gross punting average (40.2 yards/punt). Nearly half of his punts (29 out of 59) resulted in a fair catch, although that partly reflects the fact that Mengel tended to kick down the middle on a short field rather than angling his kicks to the sideline.

It's clear that Mengel was instructed to sacrifice distance for hang time on his punts, and the results for UCLA were reasonably good: the Bruins' opponents managed just 4.8 yards per punt return. I expect to see more of the same this season, although I wouldn't be surprised to see improvement in Mengel's directional punting and his punting averages.

Behind Mengel on the depth chart is redshirt sophomore Adam Searl. Searl performed reasonably well in limited opportunities last season. Although he averaged about a yard less per punt (39.1 yards/punt), about two-thirds of his punts resulted in a fair catch. While Mengel definitely holds the edge going into fall camp, this is a position battle worth keeping an eye on.

Kick Returner

Ishmael Adams

Photo Credit: Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Ishmael Adams returned both kickoffs and punts last season with mixed results. As a kick returner, there's no doubt that Adams is explosive, but over the course of the 2014-15 season, Adams' kick return average was just 22.7 yards/return, ranking him ninth in the Pac-12. And even though Adams pulled off a 100-yard return for a touchdown against the Sun Devils, Coach Mora and his staff will want more consistency from the return game.

It's hard to know what alternatives will be considered. I know that Myles Jack was returning kickoffs in the spring, but I find it hard to believe that Coach Mora would risk a key starter who would be difficult to replace in order to potentially upgrade the return game. A more likely option is Steven Manfro. Manfro returned kickoffs in 2013 and averaged 24.8 yards/return. However, Manfro's solid performance was somewhat overshadowed by Adams' fantastic 35 yard/return average that same season. By all accounts, Manfro has made a strong recovery from his season-ending injury in 2014, so if he's at full strength going into fall camp, it's likely that he'll be given an opportunity to compete with Adams to return kickoffs.

I've added Mossi Johnson to the depth chart as a kick returner because he did a decent job when given the chance last year. His 22.0 yard/return average was similar to Adams' average, so he may be in the mix as a returner as well.

Punt Returner

Steven Manfro

Photo Credit: Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Adams was responsible for all but one of the Bruins' punt returns in 2014. He flourished in the role, averaging 9.2 yards/return to rank fourth in the Pac-12. I expect Adams to hold onto this job in 2015, especially since the only returning player to field more than one punt in the past two seasons combined is Randall Goforth. However, with Goforth working his way back from season-ending injuries to his shoulders, it's probable that Coach Mora will be looking for other players to backup Adams as a punt returner.

Again, depending on the progress of his recovery, Steven Manfro may be given the opportunity to compete as a punt returner. He averaged 8.8 yards/punt in 2012, so he has valuable experience in the role.

Long Snapper

Christopher Longo

Photo Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

There is no position battle here. Redshirt senior Christopher Longo will be UCLA's long snapper this year, just as he was last year. In fact, at the moment, there isn't another long snapper on the roster at the official site, so it will be interesting to see who wins the job of backup long snapper.

Fall football training camp begins tomorrow with the first practice scheduled for 3 PM PDT. Be sure to check tomorrow afternoon for Bruins Nation's coverage from San Bernardino.

Go BRUINS!