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Washington Spring Preview 2015: Special Teams

As we near the end of our 2015 spring preview series, we take a look at an often overlooked aspect of any football team - the special teams specialists. With everyone returning, will this be an area of strength for the Huskies?

John Ross will look to leave even more coverage units in his rear view mirror in 2015
John Ross will look to leave even more coverage units in his rear view mirror in 2015
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

2014 Year in Review:

This was an area in great flux heading into last year: gone was Travis Coons who had filled all three kicking roles for the prior two seasons, and while he wasn't spectacular, he was steady and flashed some impressive athleticism at times to turn plays that should have been disasters into decent punts.  The status of Cameron Van Winkle was in question after he had battled back problems in the latter half of 2013, and Korey Durkee had looked shaky in his battles with Coons for the punting job.  There was reason to think that incoming frosh Tristan Vizcaino might be in line to win all three kicking jobs.

The return and coverage units had not been a plus in prior years, though there was hope that WR John Ross would become a major weapon as a KR - after many close calls (and call backs due to penalty) he had finally tallied a TD in the bowl game vs. BYU.

As it turned out, this was an area of relative strength.  Van Winkle appeared fully recovered and was accurate, hitting on 20 of 24 FG (83.3%) with a long of 51 yards, and was 5-8 (62.5%) from 40+ yards.  Durkee developed an effective roll-out technique, and while it didn't always look pretty, his net average of 41.3 was quite good, and he avoided being blocked - a major concern heading into the season.  The kickoff coverage units were OK, ranking 51st in return average allowed no scores.  Kickoff yardage continued to be somewhat of an issue as the team still lacks someone that can consistently get the ball in the end zone, but the overall net was reasonably good.  And while Ross still had far too many kicks called back for penalties, he added 2 more TD returns and his 24.7 average ranked 35th in the country.  True frosh Dante Pettis took over the punt return job mid-season and had a very promising campaign, notching the first punt return TD in 11 years and averaging 10.3 yards on his 28 returns to rank 20th in the nation.  As a whole, Washington's special teams were ranked 21st in the country by FEI in 2014.

Here's what we said in our Fall Camp Preview leading into the 2014 season:

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.

After such lackluster special teams play from the Huskies the last several seasons, there's really no place to go but up for the Dawgs in 2014.

Players Lost/Players Returning:

name position year
Korey Durkee P Senior
Ryan Masel LS Senior
John Ross KR Junior
Cameron Van Winkle K Junior
Dante Pettis PR Sophomore
Tristan Vizcaino K/P Sophomore

Storylines to Watch:

With every specialist position returning a starting player in 2015, there isn't much intrigue for this group heading into the spring; the main objective will be staying healthy and getting better.  But there are a few items to keep an eye on:

Kickoff distance:

Van Winkle and Vizcaino both arrived with reputations for strong legs, but so far that hasn't translated into kickoffs consistently reaching the end zone.  The Huskies notched only 19 touchbacks in 2014, a figure that tied for 82nd in the country.  While the sometimes swirling winds at Husky Stadium certainly play a role in the kicking game, opponents had 23 and 2011 was the last time the Dawgs had more touchbacks than their opponents.  Van Winkle may have lost a bit of his power with his injury issues, so the job fell mainly to Vizcaino last year as he handled 70 of the 84 kicks.

This isn't a huge issue so long as there's enough hang time on the kicks to allow the coverage units to get into position and limit the returns, and in this regard Vizcaino did a reasonable job.  But being able to drive the ball through the end zone against elite returners rather than relying on pooch kicks or other trickery would be a nice option to have.  Will we see Vizcaino putting more distance on his kicks this spring?

No hankies on the kickoff returns:

Someone on the board can probably remind me of the exact number, but Ross had quite a few TDs called back last year due to holding or block in the back penalties.  In most cases these occurred well away from the play and had little to no real impact on the play, making them that much more aggravating.  Ross is so good that this group just needs to stick to their fundamentals and not be overly aggressive in their blocking attempts.  If they can do that, Ross is almost certain to shatter the UW career record for KR TDs (3) that he currently shares with Jim Krieg.  Cleaning up the penalties on returns has to be a top priority for the special teams this spring.

Can Dante Pettis avoid a sophomore jinx?

While the Huskies had some decent punt return averages in recent years from Marvin Hall, Cody Bruns and Kasen Williams, Pettis is the first guy in a long time that showed himself as both a legit home-run threat as well as a guy that can consistently pick up good yardage and someone that won't fair catch 75% of the kicks to him.  Can he continue to provide that combination of consistency and big-play potential?

Freshmen Arriving in the Fall:

name position size
A.J. Carty LS 6'2", 270 lbs