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2018 UCLA Football Spring Preview: Bruins’ Special Teams Look to Be a Team Strength Again

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Punting and placekicking were areas of strength for the 2017 Bruins.

JJ Molson attempts a field goal during Fall Camp 2017.
Joe Piechowski

In an offseason of change, the UCLA special teams may be one of the most consistent units on the team. That’s because the Bruin special teams were one of the bright spots on the team. That’s because the specialists improved significantly from 2016.

JJ Molson was the Bruins’ starting kicker and he improved his accuracy from 60% in 2016 to 81% in 2017. Molson was just 12 of 20 in 2016 while he was 17 of 21 last season. He also made 49 of 50 extra point attempts.

As a result of that improvement, backups Andrew Strauch and Crawford Pierson saw no action at all in 2017.

UCLA’s punting also improved greatly in 2017. Stefan Flintoff won the job and had what should be called a fantastic season. 38% of his punts landed inside the opponents’ 20-yard line and only had one touchback. He improved his punting average by nearly three yards per punt and his longest punt from 53 yards to 65 yards. Nine of his punts exceeded 50 yards.

Flintoff’s season was so good that backup Austin Kent saw no action all season.

Of course, the other specialist is long snapper Johnny Den Bleyker. Den Bleyker was the only long snapper on the UCLA roster who played in any games last season and there’s no reason to think that it will be different this year.

Now, if there’s an area of uncertainty on special teams, it could be on the return side. Adarius Pickett was UCLA’s most frequent punt returner last season, but Darren Andrews and Mossi Johnson, who both also returned some punts have graduated. Of course, it’s possible that Pickett may not end up returning punts at all this year, due to the change in coaching staff.

Darnay Holmes was UCLA’s most frequent kickoff return man last year and could end up with that duty again this year, but the only other Bruins who returned any kickoffs and are returning are Mo Osling and Octavius Spencer. Again, that doesn’t mean these guys will be UCLA’s kick returners this year, but the potential candidates could include any of the backs, receivers, or defensive backs. Only time will tell with respect to these important positions.

It will be interesting to see how new special teams coordinator Roy Manning impacts the Bruin special teams, but there’s no reason why, with another season under their belts, the kickers won’t improve again this year. As far as the returners go, I’m not even going to fathom a guess as to who will end up returning kicks, but, after watching the recruiting cycle, something tells me that the returners will likely be some of the fastest guys on the team.