KR De'Anthony Thomas (Ankle — questionable)
Washington got the loudest wake-up call imaginable last week that special teams is just as important as offense and defense: If not for a waking nightmare of horrid kickoff return coverage and kickoff executions, Washington would have likely won comfortably against Stanford after they dominated the Cardinal on offense and defense. Alas, it was not to be, and Washington is on the outside of the top-10 looking in, instead of being 5-0 overall and 1-0 in the conference.
Enter the Oregon Ducks. If you thought that Ty Montgomery was electric in special teams—and don't let me take anything away from him, because he had a monster game—Oregon will blow your socks off. Long renowned for the speed with which they play on offense, Oregon's kickoff and punt returners are as fast and explosive as you'd expect them to be. Simply put, if Washington can't win or fight to a stalemate in the battle of field position, they have no chance of ending Oregon's nine-game winning streak against the Dawgs.
If there's anything that limits De'Anthony Thomas' kickoff return stats, it's the fact that his defense doesn't give up a lot of points, leading to a relative dearth of kickoff return attempts. When he does get the ball in his hands, though, he lives up to his reputation as one of (if not the) fastest players in college football. In his career, Thomas has returned 57 kickoffs for a very impressive 26.1 yards per return, including three scores. If he's unable to play Saturday due to a nagging ankle injury, he'll likely be replaced by Keanon Lowe, a speedy receiver in his own right. Lowe has returned just four kickoffs this year and 15 in his career, but he's shown flashes of greatness, including a 60-yard return last year against California. He's likely licking his chops after watching game film of Washington's kickoff coverage last week against Stanford.
Punt returner Bralon Addison currently leads the nation with 30.9 yards per return, thanks to a monster game against Cal in which he scored twice on returns of 75 and 67 yards. Take away those returns, though, and he still averages 14.8 yards per attempt. He's a shifty player who is difficult to bring down in the open field, and UW will likely need to rely on its defensive starters like Shaq Thompson, Cory Littleton and Travis Feeney to wrap him up. Undoubtedly, Washington will hope to force Addison to make fair catches, and I wouldn't be surprised at all to see Travis Coons sacrifice some distance on his kicks in favor of getting more hang time to allow his gunners time to get into position. (This being the Pac-12, I'm sure we can look forward to at least one inevitable BS kick catch interference call.)
It didn't take true freshman Matt Wogan long to wrest the kickoff duties away from Alejandro Maldonado, the one-time Washington commit and every Duck fan's favorite punching bag. Wogan was a highly touted recruit with a purported big leg, and he's lived up to the reputation: His kickoff average of 62.1 yards ranks several yards ahead of Maldonado's average last year, and his touchback average of 22.5 percent dwarfs that of his predecessor's 13.3 percent. However, Wogan has already kicked five of his 49 attempts out of bounds, so he definitely has some accuracy issues to clean up if he wants to keep his opponents from starting with favorable field position.
Maldonado retained field goal kicking duties and assumed punting duties, and hasn't had a chance to show off much of either skill: Oregon's offense, as you may have heard, doesn't often punt, nor does it often settle for field goals. Frankly, there's not a lot to be learned here, and considering the efficiency with which its offense operates, I'll be very surprised if Oregon's ability to kick field goals and/or punt effectively is a major component of which team comes away with the W on Saturday.
As always, thanks to College Football Statistics, ESPN and USA Today's College Football Injury Report for the relevant data that went into this article. You can follow me on Twitter by clicking below.
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