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2014 Football Review: Special Teams

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In our continuing review of the 2014 season for your Washington Husky football team we take a look at the special teams. New coordinator Jeff Choate carried with him a reputation as an excellent special teams coach - did he live up to the hype?

Opposing kickoff teams had this view of John Ross a lot
Opposing kickoff teams had this view of John Ross a lot
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Entering the 2014 season the Huskies faced a number of questions regarding their special teams.  Gone was the multi-talented and dependable Travis Coons who had done double and often triple duty as the placekicker, punter and sometime kickoff specialist.  His prospective replacement at kicker - Cameron Van Winkle - had missed the latter part of the 2013 season with back issues that had some worried he might have to retire, and the main candidate at punter - Korey Durkee - had been plagued with inconsistency.  The kickoff return team featured a potential star in John Ross, but the coverage units had not impressed.  Here's part of what Brad had to say last fall:

It would be generous to call the Huskies' special teams anything but mediocre the past five seasons. While they had a handful of good kickers and punters in that time, the coverage and return games were largely abysmal. The fact that most of the special teams units were filled with starter suggests that the issue wasn't a matter of the talent on the field, but that the Dawgs were poorly coached. Under Chris Petersen, Boise State's special teams were usually solid, if not a strength. Defensive line coach Jeff Choate will also handle the coordination of special teams, and he can add a great deal of value to the team if he can simply get fundamental play from the coverage units in particular.

2014 In Review:

As it turned out, the biggest worries - what kind of production would the Huskies get at the kicking spots - turned out to be areas of strength for Washington.  Van Winkle showed no ill effects from his back issues and was quite dependable, hitting on 20-24 FG attempts (83.3%) including a long of 51 yards.  By FEI's field goal efficiency measure, that placed the Huskies 37th in the country when factoring in the distance of his makes and attempts.  Point afters were slightly more dicey as he missed two of his 49 attempts.  At punter, Durkee was rather effective even if many of the kicks were not pretty.  He averaged 42.1 yards per kick, and more importantly only 12 of his 63 kicks were fielded and for just 50 yards, and none were blocked.

A new wrinkle on the season was the introduction of the QB pooch punt.  In theory this gave the coaching staff the ability to keep the offense on the field on 4th down situations in that grey area between the opponent 35 to 45 yard lines and grant the QB the discretion to either take a few steps back from his shotgun stance and kick the ball away or run a standard offensive play to try to pick up the 1st down.  In practice it appeared as though the QB kicked it every time, and the results were fair - between Cyler Miles and Jeff Lindquist, these kicks averaged 31.9 yards, with 6 of the 8 kicks rolling dead inside the 20 (none were returned) and the other two going for touchbacks.

Ross delivered plenty of excitement on kickoff returns in 2014, though not all of it good.  He officially brought back 2 of his 38 returns for touchdowns, but had several more called back due to penalty.  His average of 24.7 was good for 35th nationally, but that number could have been higher if not for a number of questionable decisions on his part to bring kicks out of the end zone only to be dropped short of the 20 (and well short of the 25 where the Huskies would have gotten the ball had he taken the touchback).  The threat he presented however caused a number of teams to avoid him and kick high and short, and the opponent net kickoff average of 36.9 meant the Huskies were starting just shy of the 30 yard line on average.

One area of notable improvement over 2013 was in punt returns.  The year before the Huskies had managed to field just 14 punts for 73 yards (5.2 yard average) as the job rotated between Marvin Hall, Ross and Kasen Williams.  Stepping in to lay claim to the job early in the year was true frosh Dante Pettis, and he showed a real flair for the job.  His 28 returns for 288 yards (10.3 yard average) was the best for a Husky since Charles Fredrick back in 2003, and his 87 yard TD return vs. Colorado was the first since Frederick scored on an 86 yard return vs. Oregon State that same year.

Newcomer Tristan Vizcaino ended up handling most of the kickoffs, and while he wasn't able to consistently kick the ball out of the end zone (17 touchbacks on 70 kicks) and his average kick distance of 60.4 yards ranked just 78th nationally, it did allow Van Winkle to focus on placekicking.  On the 13 kickoffs Van Winkle handled, he averaged just 56.2 yards, so it was apparent why the coaches burned Vizcaino's redshirt.

Kickoff coverage was just OK as they allowed opponents to average 20.3 yards on 63 returns with a long of 62.  Combined with the mediocre kickoff distances, the Huskies ranked just 71st in FEI's kickoff efficiency measure.

Looking Ahead to 2015

With all of their specialists returning next year - including long snapper Ryan Masel - this is an area that should be a strength for the Huskies.  Assuming that Van Winkle's back remains a non-issue, the Huskies have the luxury of a dependable kicker with decent range (he was 5-8 from 40+ yards).  And while Durkee's frequent rugby style punts lacked style points, they were frequently quite effective line drives that opponents were unable to field.  Given the difficult kicking conditions in Husky Stadium as the calendar turns to October and November, it's a style that suits the conditions.

In Ross and Pettis, the Huskies also boast legitimate threats in the return game that can take it to the house.  Ross in particular will enter the season as perhaps the most dangerous return man in the game, and if A) the Huskies can learn to avoid getting nicked for block in the back calls and B) Ross learns when it's the better part of valor to just take a knee in the end zone, we could see a record-breaking year for him in the kickoff return game.

Coverage units are always harder to guess, as it's hard to know who the coaches will decide to place on special teams.  The coaches were certainly not afraid to run starters out there as Shaq Thompson and Budda Baker were regulars on the coverage teams.  Baker seems like a pretty good bet to notch a punt block at some point.  One thing to keep an eye on is the creativity of Choate in his special teams units.  Early in the season he added the wrinkle of having Lindquist in on the punt team along with Shaq which gave them the ability to run fakes without tipping off the defense simply by their presence on the field.  Their execution on a couple of attempts this past season was not good, but with another off-season of practice this could become a nice weapon to exploit.  Choate also experimented a bit with the swinging-gate style look on extra points, popularized in recent years by Oregon.  Again, their execution wasn't good, but if they can pick enough reps in practice to pull this off in games, they could steal an extra point here and there - something that could be critical for a 2015 squad that loses a lot of talent.  Finally, it will be interesting to see if the pooch-punt experiment finally results in the Huskies catching an opponent off-guard and leads to a 4th down conversion.