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Washington Huskies 2017 Spring Preview: Rip(lacing) Van Winkle

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Don’t even pretend like that’s not the best pun you’ve heard all day.

Oregon v Washington Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

While Brad decided in his QB preview to clickbait all y’all by clearly facetiously wondering “Can Jake Browning hold the starting spot?” I’ve decided to not rile all of you up. This isn’t because I’m above it all, but rather because I do not have the emotional energy to deal with a bunch of people thinking a title like, “Will Dissly making another move—to kicker?” or “Justin Trudeau once broke the field goal record and still has three years of NCAA eligibility and is getting kinda bored with running Canada at the mo’ so will transfer to Washington” is serious.

Although now that I think about it, everyone’s hot take on kickers probably doesn’t have as much potential to become an insane crapstorm anyway.

Kicker tends to be that position where we all take it for granted and then, every four years, freak the frick out after remembering how high-stakes they are. Kind of like a more esoteric version of the Olympics.

And, like a more frequently rotating horde of New Jersey cicadas, the kicking battle (and maybe some intrigue with the punters) will soon be unleashed. Is that the worst simile you’ve ever heard? Yes? Good.

2016 in Review

Last season marked the last for Cameron Van Winkle, who leaves as the third highest-scoring kicker in Washington history. The last two years he hit 80% of his field goals and, while some performances *coughArizonacough* were remarkably stressful to watch, this was mostly a result of his otherwise above-average accuracy probably giving Dawg fans standards that no college kicker could meet.

So, if you’re paying attention to the kicking and punting storylines this spring, the main focus will certainly be on who’s replacing Van Winkle.

Kickoffs this year were taken by Tristan Vizcaino, who forced touchbacks around 40% of the time.

On the punting front, Vizcaino also took over in 2016 from Korey Durkee, who graduated after the 2015 season. Many of our readers were not shy in detailing the stress-inducing effects of watching Vizcaino nearly get blocked each punt but, if you’re applying rugby punting to football, that’s pretty much how it’s supposed to work. He averaged around 41 yards per punt with a long of 65. In line with that, Vizcaino’s punting last season did a fantastic job limiting opposing returners; the Dawgs excelled at defense, which was set up by special teams, which was set up by punt coverage, which was set up by T-Vizzy, which is a name I just made up because I didn’t wanna say Vizcaino 500 times in one paragraph.

So with that in mind, here’s what we can look for this spring:

Kickers

T-Vizzy: Senior, 6’2”, 202 lbs

Van Soderberg: Redshirt Freshman, 6’, 200 lbs

Sebastian Valerio: Redshirt Sophomore, 5’9”, 176 lbs

Punters

T-Vizzy: Senior, 6’2”, 202 lbs

Joel Whitford*: Freshman, 6’3”, 219 lbs

Van Soderberg: Redshirt Freshman, 6’, 200 lbs

Race Porter: Redshirt Freshman, 6’1”, 177 lbs

*Class of 2017 early enrollee

Storylines to watch

Who replaces Cameron Van Winkle for PATs and field goals?

Van Soderberg came in as one of the early-enrollees from the class of 2016 to do both punting and kicking, while Tristan Vizcaino occasionally filled in for extra points and field goals the last couple years. As someone who graduated early to join the Dawgs for last year’s spring camp, it was assumed that Soderberg (who works in both kicking and punting) would be well tuned to take over for one of those jobs. However, when Coach Pete got a commitment from JuCo punter Joel Whitford from Prokick Australia, many took it as a sign that Soderberg wasn’t progressing in that realm as fast as the coaches wanted. If that is the case, I’d cautiously assume that he’ll be focusing more on kicking than punting. In that case, does Vizcaino’s limited experience with FGs in college mean that much, or are they both on even ground? Alternatively, there’s also Sebastian Valerio, who came as a Class of 2015 walk-on.

How much does Vizcaino take on?

There are a few different scenarios in which Tristan Vizcaino could have a handful of different roles. On one hand, the strength of his leg plus his affinity for taking kickoff returners down (not that we enjoy the few times that’s necessary) means he’s so valuable for special teams ability to set up defensive success. On the other hand, he also has done every single job a kicker or punter can do in his years with the Huskies, and can fill in competently—and possibly continue as Punter #1—should the development of a preferred specialist not go according to Coach Pete’s plan. I wouldn’t be shocked if he ends up doing both kickoffs and field goals but of course, ideally, there would be a different person doing one of each so each can be devoted to perfecting his one job.

Of the three kickers listed on the roster, Vizcaino has the most experience with both kickoffs and field goals and, entering spring practice—should coaches decide that one kicker takes one job—it comes down to the opportunity cost of losing him in whichever specialization he (hypothetically) foregoes. My take would be that Washington would lose more without him on the kickoff team since that’s where we’ve already derived most of his value.

Then again (assuming he’s not needed punting), he could make like an NFL kicker and do three-pointers and kickoffs. We’ll see.

Is there actually a battle for punter?

Like I stated earlier, many people saw the addition of Joel Whitford as a sign that Van Soderberg was struggling to learn the rugby-style kicking technique that helps boost the Dawgs’ punt-coverage success.

Now that The Whitford of Oz is here, does that pretty much mean its his job? Sure, I know there’s technically always a battle for each position and that Vizcaino did a great job himself as a punter in 2016, but I’m also skeptical that many people could beat out a guy who specifically comes from an Aussie-rules football background. Aussie-kicking and rugby-kicking are quite similar and there are nuances to these techniques that many American football players just can’t fully get given their limited exposure. Versus someone who grew up with these methods—and who, as an Aussie-style kicker, is much more versatile in adapting his kicking to the situation—I would be reasonably surprised if Whitford doesn’t quickly emerge as a superior choice.

Do good things, don’t do bad things, and bow down to Washington.