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UW Fall Camp Preview 2015 - Special Teams

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Washington's special teams in 2014 were among the better units in the nation; will they be a strength in 2015 too? We kick off our 2015 fall camp preview series with a look at the unsung folks that make up the special teams for Washington.

PK Cameron Van Winkle in action
PK Cameron Van Winkle in action
Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

If you are feeling a bit more pep in your step and a little bit of that old familiar fan anxiety burbling in your stomach, it's because we are less than a month away from the opening of fall camp which means the season is getting close.  And that means it's time to start ramping up the content and getting serious about looking ahead to your 2015 Washington Huskies.  First up in our Fall Camp Preview series is a look at the Special Teams, the folks that play a critical - and chronically under-appreciated role - in achieving success.

For the Huskies, this is arguably the most established and predictable group on the team as they return every specialist but one:

Who's Gone (1):

Player Pos Year Stats
John Ross KR RS-So 38 KR/938 yds, 2 TD's, 24.7 avg

While I certainly don't want to minimize the loss to injury of Ross - he would have entered 2015 as one of, if not the most electric kickoff returner in the country with 3 touchdowns and a 24.1 yard average in his first two seasons - there's reason to believe the drop-off here won't be severe, not when the Huskies can run folks like Budda Baker, Dante Pettis, Marvin Hall and Deontae Cooper back there.  Add in newcomers like Chico McClatcher, Myles Gaskin and Austin Joyner and I'll be surprised if the Huskies don't boast one of the better kickoff return units in the conference, assuming they can clean up the holding/clipping penalties that called back a few more Ross touchdowns.

Key Returners (5):

Player Pos Year Stats
Ryan Masel LS Sr 2 year starter as short and long snapper
Korey Durkee P Sr 63 punts, 42.1 avg, 19 inside the 20
Cameron Van Winkle K Jr 20/24 FG (51 long), 47/49 PAT
Dante Pettis PR So 28 PR/288 yds, 1 TD, 10.3 avg
Tristan Vizcaino K So 70 kickoffs, 17 touchbacks, 60.4 avg

Washington headed into the 2014 season with some serious uncertainty at all three kicker positions with the graduation of Mr. Dependable do-everything Travis Coons, but those fears were put to rest as his shoes were capably filled.  Korey Durkee - who had a brief run as the starting punter as a frosh before being replaced by Coons - settled in nicely as the punter, finding the consistency he'd lacked earlier in his career, speeding up his stride and kick time and harnessing his big leg to post the 9th best season average in Husky history (42.1 ypk).  And it wasn't just big kicks that out-kicked the coverage - the Huskies only allowed 12 punt returns on the year as their net punting average was 38.2 ypk.

Cameron Van Winkle, a touted kicker at Mt. Si before signing with the Huskies had battled a back issue in 2013 and there was uncertainty following that season if he'd be able to continue.  But he was able to work through it and seized the place-kicking job and posted a strong year, hitting on 20 of 24 attempts (15/16 from 39 and closer, 5/8 from 40 and beyond with a long of 51) and hitting on 47 of 49 PATs to finish with 107 points.  Nearly all of those marks placed him in the top-10 of single season kicking records at the UW.

Tristan Vizcaino battled Durkee for the punting job and Van Winkle for the place-kicking job but had to settle for being the primary kickoff specialist, allowing Van Winkle a bit of a break.  While the freshman wasn't consistently booming kicks through the end zone, he did notch 17 touchbacks and a posted a decent 60.4 yard average (given wind conditions in Husky Stadium in the late fall, this can be a tough task).

Another true freshmen in Dante Pettis locked-down the punt return duties early in the season and he displayed a combination of explosiveness and consistency that hasn't been seen in that role since Charles Frederick back in 2003.  He fielded 28 punts and turned that into 288 yards and an impressive 87 yard TD return vs. Colorado that showed terrific vision and speed.

The Huskies as a group ended up ranked 21st in special teams play by FEI, powered mainly by the efficiency of Van Winkle, the effectiveness of the punt game in getting good kicks and severely limiting the number of returns, and getting great seasons from Pettis on punt returns and from Ross on kickoff returns.  The kickoffs and coverage were just average.

Newcomers (0):

With the news that long-snapper A.J. Carty will be delaying his enrollment to January, there were no specialists added to the team in the 2015 recruiting class.  Of course that doesn't include skill position players likely to get a look in return roles - I'd expect Chico McClatcher to get a long look, and both Myles Gaskin and Austin Joyner are candidates as well - and if any of the incoming linebackers avoid a redshirt, that's a position group that usually fills up the coverage units.

Analysis:

While you never like to lose a weapon of the caliber of Ross and injuries can always wreak havoc with the best-laid of plans, this is an area on the Huskies where Chris Petersen has to be feeling pretty good.  All of his kicking roles return experienced and effective players, his snapper is in his 3rd year of starting, he has a proven weapon to return punts and a large cast of potential breakout stars for the kickoff return role.  Heck, even in the role of quick-kicking quarterbacks (a subject of no small amount of controversy around these parts) he returns a guy with experience in RS-Jr. Jeff Lindquist.

After identifying his new primary kickoff returner, Special Teams coordinator Jeff Choate's biggest task would seem to be finding improvement in the kickoff game.  Another year of strength & conditioning training should help Vizcaino find some more oomph in his leg, and the team boasts a wealth of athletic bodies at LB and S to help fill out the coverage units.  As long as Durkee and Van Winkle don't suffer through slumps in their 2nd full seasons in their respective roles, this should be an area of strength for the 2015 Dawgs.