Entering the 2013 season, many viewed the kicking game as a serious weakness. Travis Coons had hit 9 of 14 field goals in 2012, but it sometimes felt like the then-junior couldn't be relied upon to hit anything remotely deep. Coons steadily worked to flip that narrative throughout the year, and he finished 15 of 16, good for 93.8% accuracy. He still wasn't booting 50-yard bombs, but when the team needed three points, Coons could be trusted out to around 42-45 yards. In college, that sort of consistency is all a coach can really ask for. It was a good enough year to earn Coons All-Pac-12 Honorable Mention as a placekicker.
Coons is gone, busy competing for the Tennessee Titans kicking job. Three players appear to be vying for place-kicking duties. The only player fans are likely to recognize by name is sophomore Cameron Van Winkle of Mount Si High School in Snoqualmie. He was pretty highly-touted as a recruit (as far as kickers go, anyway) and many expected him to push Coons last season in a camp competition that never appeared particularly close.
Mitch Johnson is a sophomore from Bellevue who recently transferred over from UCLA. To be honest, I don't know much about his kicking. I do know that starting UCLA kicker Ka'imi Fairbairn is believed to have NFL potential, so Johnson could be a talented kicker who didn't have a realistic shot at earning a starting role with the Bruins. He could also be a fringe player.
Finally, Tristan Vizcaino is a freshman listed at both place-kicker and punter. He was also a high-profile recruit; Scout named him the top specialist in California for his class. According to GoHuskies.com he completed 9 of 12 attempts as a senior, with a long of 40 yards, and 5 of 6 his junior year with a long of 47 yards. Those numbers seem encouraging, but for all I know Johnson and Van Winkle were just as capable in high school.
Normally, I would prefer to have stronger opinions about the players I'm covering, especially when the whole point of the post is to make a prediction. Unfortunately, I haven't seen any practices and the various beat writers don't exactly hone in on special teams.
Adam Jude has mentioned Van Winkle kicking field goals to end 11-on-11 drills a couple times, which suggests he is operating as the starter; at least for now. Beyond that, notes from both Jude and the UW Daily seem to hint that the kickers have all performed pretty similarly, with no one player dominating. One day, Van Winkle hit two out of four, Johnson hit one of three, and Vizcaino hit two of three.
It's tough to tell if Vizcaino and Thompson are nipping at Van Winkle's heels, or if he is comfortably on track to start at Hawaii. We won't really know what we have here until the attempts start mattering.
Prediction: Cameron Van Winkle
Coons served as Washington's punter in 2013 almost by default. Korey Durkee was available, but the old coaching staff made their opinion of Durkee fairly clear by choosing to utilize Coons as a triple-threat place-kicker/punter/kick-off extraordinaire for nearly the entire season. Coons did a commendable job given the workload, averaging 39.8 yards per punt, but it seems likely that the new staff will utilize a dedicated punter instead of pressing a guy like Cameron Van Winkle into double duty. (Note: Coons actually earned All-Pac-12 2nd team honors for his punting. Am I off in thinking that he was more average than good in this regard?)
When Corey Durkee punted as a freshman in 2012, he averaged 36.9 yards per punt. He's had two years to improve, but the fact that he couldn't edge out Coons last year was discouraging. The only other player listed as a punter on the roster is Tristan Vizcaino, the aforementioned freshman who is also competing as a place-kicker. According to GoHuskies, he averaged 39.2 yards on 25 punts as a junior in high school, including six pinned inside the 20-yard line.
There are a lot of things we don't know about this competition. For one, Coach Petersen and his special teams coordinator Jeff Choate might have a different opinion of Durkee than Coach Sark did. Durkee also could have taken a big step forward from last season that we don't know about yet, though that's not especially likely.
Vizcaino also adds to the mystery. All else being roughly equal it might make sense for the staff to opt for the younger guy and bank on his growth over the course of the season.
For now, without any specific word to the contrary, Durkee probably deserves to be favored, with Vizcaino as a wildcard. It's possible that the coaching staff has already been impressed with one player or the other and the press simply hasn't noticed or hasn't bothered to write about punters.
Another position that will likely have some fans a little uneasy until the season begins.
Prediction: Korey Durkee
In filling three roles last year, Coons was successful as a place-kicker, solid as a punter, and pretty bad as a kick-off specialist. Van Winkle started the year handling kick-offs, but he hurt his back early on, leading to the Coons takeover. Nearly every kick-off was a line-drive headed right towards the returner (or at least it felt that way), and combined with poor coverage, it caused the team problems all season long.
It's safe to assume that Van Winkle, Vizcaino, and Johnson are all competing for kick-offs. Van Winkle won the job last season before the injury, so it would make sense for him to retake that role. While I expect kick coverage to improve dramatically under Petersen/Choate, stronger, higher kick-offs would go a long way towards alleviating Washington's kick-off pains.
Predicted Starter: Cameron Van Winkle