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Special Teams Preview: Stanford

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Christian McCaffrey isn’t the only excellent special-teamer for the Cardinal

USC v Stanford Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

In a game the magnitude of tonight’s top-10 clash, special teams figure to play a key role. While UW’s return game and coverage have been quite good so far, the kicking has left something to be desired. Normally reliable Cameron Van Winkle missed two make-able field goals last week against Arizona that could have meant a loss. Tristan Vizcaino’s method of freaking out Husky fans as he runs to the sideline and punts the ball between the facemask and chinstrap of the oncoming rusher seems just odd.

Stanford has an excellent kicking game and a return man in Christian McCaffrey that the Dawgs would be foolish to kick to.

I spoke to Stanford blogger Hank Waddles who runs the site Go Mighty Card. Here’s his take on McCaffrey in the return game:

It's interesting to see how teams approach Christian McCaffrey as a kick returner. So far they've been avoiding him, but there's a price to be paid for that. Punters are good enough nowadays to angle the ball towards the sideline and limit any punt returner, but the only way to limit McCaffrey on kickoffs is to kick it short. As a result, the Stanford offense is typically starting at the 35-yard line. Even with all of McCaffrey's success last season, I can't imagine their average drive starting spot was that high. Over the course of the season, this is great for the Cardinal, but I think opposing coaches realize that if they can get through a game without watching him take one to the house, it's a good thing for them. I look forward to seeing how the Washington coaching staff decides to approach this.

Stanford Special teams depth chart:

Stanford boasts an outstanding placekicker and punter. Jake Bailey handles punting and kickoff duties (McCaffrey is versatile, but does not handle kickoffs as is incorrectly shown in the depth chart above), and has boomed 9 touchbacks on his 16 kickoffs.

Once again, I turn to Waddles to give us the Cardinal perspective on the kicking game:

Kicker Conrad Ukropina and punter Jake Bailey have been huge strengths. Ukropina has made some big kicks in his time, most notably a game-winning 45-yarder last season as time expired to beat Notre Dame, but his strength is his consistency. I've been watching Stanford football for almost thirty years now, and I can't remember being more confident in any other kicker. He only missed two field goals last season, and even though one of them was important (a 43-yarder in Stanford's two-point loss to Oregon), he's about as good as it gets at the college level. You can say the same thing for Jake Bailey. He's averaging 45.3 yards per punt, which is only fifth-best in the Pac-12, but he makes up for that with his accuracy. In the last two games he's placed three balls inside the two yard line. All in all, Stanford's special teams play is a clear strength.

As you can see in the stats below, the kicking numbers are very good, but the return numbers reek of opposing teams kicking away from the Heisman runner-up.

Bailey has only had four of his punts returned so far, but they have been brought back an average of 12.25 yards per return. The kickoff coverage has been better, allowing less than 20 yards per return.