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Washington Huskies Football 2016 Preview Better/Worse/Neutral: Kickers

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Next up in our Better/Worse/Neutral series are the people who make Dick Baird’s heart get all sorts of fluttery. You know them as the men behind the kicking game.

NCAA Football: Washington at Arizona Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

Losses: P Korey Durkee, LS Ryan Masel
Additions: P/PK Van Soderberg (5-11, 199 lbs.)

Washington’s only loss among its kicking specialists is one that may well be felt keenly, especially in the early going of the season. During the 2014 and 2015 seasons, Korey Durkee handled 110 of the Huskies’ 116 traditional punts, averaging 43.55 yards per attempt — good for third in the Pac-12 and 29th in the nation. Moreover, the Dawgs allowed just 6.67 yards per return, good for third-best in the conference, and were one of six teams in the Pac-12 to not surrender a punt return for a touchdown. Junior Tristan Vizcaino was Durkee’s primary backup and figures to inherit the starting job, but as he also handles UW’s kickoffs, you have to imagine that his coaches are wary of putting too much on his plate. True freshman Van Soderberg was recruited as a potential immediate replacement for Durkee, but some changes the coaches have made to his mechanics have left some observers with the impression that he might need a redshirt year in order to nail down his technique before hitting the field. Of course, it also bears mentioning that Chris Petersen is a big proponent of trying to catch opposing defenses off-guard by getting his quarterback in on the pooch-punting action. Jake Browning attempted six such punts last year and pinned the opponents inside their 20-yard line all six times (and inside their 10-yard line four times), so fully expect to see Browning attempt those types of stunts (usually on the opponent’s side of the 50-yard line) anywhere up to a dozen times next season.

On the placekicking side of things, Cameron Van Winkle is back for his third year as Washington’s go-to leg on field goals and PATs. He’s made 36 of 44 career attempts (81.8 percent) and was good on attempts of 49, 48 and 46 yards last year. If there’s anything slightly worrisome about his game, it’s that the one pressure situation in which he was asked to deliver came in the closing seconds of the Boise State game, when his 46-yard attempt had the potential to send the contest to overtime. Despite the clean snap and block, Van Winkle just barely pushed his kick to the right of the goal post, missing by about a foot. That being said, it’s hard to get too worked up about a sample size of one, especially when Van Winkle connected on 15 of his 18 other attempts last year. In addition, he was a perfect 49-for-49 on PAT attempts.

As I indicated above, Vizcaino will presumably assume kickoff specialist duties again, making 2016 his third year in that role. He doesn’t have an enormous leg (just 27 of his 76 kickoffs went for touchbacks, compared to 66 of 88 for the Pac-12 leader, Arizona State’s Zane Gonzalez), and Washington’s 22.02 average yards allowed per return ranked just eighth in the conference. Moreover, the four kickoff returns the Huskies allowed to go for 40 or more yards ranked 104th in the nation, and tied for last in the Pac-12. Petersen is a big proponent of getting young players experience on special teams, though, which means that those numbers might not improve the way some fans would prefer.