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Huskies Season in Review - Special Teams

What went right and what went oh-so-wrong for Washington’s specialists

NCAA Football: Stanford at Washington Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

What We Expected

The 2017 Huskies special teams were a mixed bag. Dante Pettis completed an immaculate career as a punt returner by setting the career punt return touchdown record. Joel Whitford surprised many and turned the punting game into a strength. The Dawgs ranked 7th in the nation in Punting success (as measured by expected net punt yards, adjusted for starting position and game situation). Meanwhile, the kicking game was a shambles. Tristan Vizcaino struggled with consistency until Van Soderberg took over in the Arizona State game, which possibly cost UW the game and the Pac-12 North. The success in returning punts did not carry over to kickoffs, where the Huskies were well below-average across the board.

Entering 2018, there was plenty of concern about the kicking game and how to replace Pettis. Adam Jude wrote a piece during spring practice about Soderberg’s “fresh start” in the kicking game, which is a phrase that seldom precedes a great triumph. Soderberg ultimately lost the competition to walk-on Peyton Henry due to some clutch kicks in fall camp, but the sadly prophetic writing was on the wall (or in the Twitter comments) from the beginning:

Although Whitford gave some reason for optimism, the fan base did not feel good about the special teams in general. A plurality of the fans (42% of about 800 votes) were more concerned about the specialists than any other position. As usual, there was wisdom in the masses.

What We Saw

As everyone remembers, Washington opened the season in a marquee match-up against Auburn. After a three-and-out, Whitford came on to punt, booted it 43 yards, and the Huskies promptly gave up a 32-yard return. Peyton Henry missed a 40-yard field goal that would have given the Huskies the lead late in the third quarter.

The special teams mistakes continued throughout the year. The most famous blunder cost the Huskies a rivalry win at Autzen against the Ducks. I’m sorry to make you relive the moment, but if I have to go through it, then you do too:

Whitford had net punts of 12 and 17-yards in the second half against Stanford that let the Cardinal back into the game. Game after game, opponents had better field position because the Huskies struggled to cover kicks and failed to match those gains when they received kicks. The overall numbers paint a revolting picture:

  • UW ranked near the bottom of the country in every special teams stat tracked by the S&P+ stat model: value per FG kick (95), Punt efficiency (86), Kickoff efficiency (97), Punt return efficiency (124), and Kick return efficiency (97). Overall, UW ranked 117th out of 129 in special teams.
  • UW made only three FGs over 35 yards all year on eight attempts. Opponents were 11/18 on such kicks.
  • UW’s season long was a 41-yard field goal. Opponents made seven kicks of that distance or longer.
  • UW had four combined kicks and punts blocked and only blocked two.
  • UW’s 17.8 yards per kick return average ranked 111th out of 129 in FBS. The Huskies allowed opponents to return kicks an average of 21.1 yards, which was 76th nationally.
  • Only 32% of UW’s kickoffs went for touchbacks, which ranked 92nd. The national average was 50%.
  • UW averaged 5.3 yards per punt return and gave up 10.2 yards per punt return.
  • UW punted the ball into the end zone on 13% of punts. Opponents only did so 4% of the time.

What We Learned

The main thing that we learned is that UW needs some new players on special teams.

In the place-kicking game, it’s frightening to think how bad Soderberg must have been in camp and practices not to supplant Henry at some point. The inability to make kicks over 35 yards had a clear impact on play-calling. By the end of the year, the Huskies treated most of the opponent’s side of the field as four-down territory. While that might be optimal strategy in some situations, having the option to take the points can be a good fallback in a close game.

NCAA Football: Washington at Oregon Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

Another major problem that should be easily correctable is the lack of touchbacks for the kickoff team. Henry simply did not have the leg to get the ball in the end zone, which severely taxed the kick coverage team and gave the opposition many chances to break big plays. The coaching staff clearly understood this problem because they constantly tinkered with different kickoff looks, like short kicks intended to induce fair catches. Henry also struggled to kick off directionally. Even when he managed a couple of touchbacks in the Rose Bowl, they were kicked dead center where the return man has the most options to find a lane for a big return.

The punting game has a simpler explanation. Despite the poor outings highlighted earlier, Whitford mostly rounded into form as the year went on. He missed time with an injury that he sustained making a tackle against Utah (because he is an awesomely tough Australian). While he was out, Race Porter filled in and put up very poor punting numbers. For the year, Whitford registered a “successful” punt on 64% of his 33 attempts, while Porter was only good for 44% on his 18 punts. Porter’s wobblers didn’t allow the coverage unit to get down field in time to tackle the returner, which led to almost four more yards per return on his punts than on Whitford’s. (11.4 to 7.8).

In both punt and kick returns, the coaching staff opted for security over explosiveness. Aaron Fuller was a sure-handed punt returner, but fair caught more than half of his punts and averaged a very poor 5.5 yards per return. Likewise, the kickoff return team mostly featured Sean McGrew and Myles Gaskin after Chico McClatcher’s injury. Neither running back ever returned a kick more than 25 yards. In fact, Salvon Ahmed’s 31-yarder on his only kick return was the team’s longest return of the year.

What We Should Expect to See in 2019

UW’s two biggest problems in special teams were field goals and kickoffs. Fortunately, they should be able to address both of those deficiencies with one player. UW signed Hawaii kicker Tim Horn during the early signing period. Horn is rated as one of the top kicker’s in the country by 247 Sports and the #2 kicker in the country by Chris Sailer’s specialized kicker ranking. Horn has shown excellent consistency in his camps, but his calling card is his big leg. He should be able to fix the touchback problem when he walks onto the field.

Of course, it’s always dicey to put so much hope in a true freshman. On the other hand, a kicker is different from a lineman in that he doesn’t need to put on size, doesn’t go up against older players head-to-head, and doesn’t have to learn much about the team’s playbook. The Huskies have not recruited a kicker in the same stratosphere as Horn in the last decade. Sailer has a very good track record of his top few kickers succeeding in the college ranks. Unless something goes horribly wrong, Horn should make a big and noticeable difference off the bat.

The punting game does not require an overhaul. Even if Whitford (a rising junior) never becomes a pro-caliber punter, his success rate would already put the Huskies in the middle of the conference. If he returns next year at full health, it should turn the punting game from a major weakness to neutral or better. Whether next year’s QB will have the magical pooch-punting ability of Jake Browning remains to be seen. Perhaps the coaching staff can coax him to pass those dark arts on to Jacob Eason before he leaves school.

One thing we don’t know is whether the coaching staff is satisfied with kick and punt returns that make neither mistakes nor explosive plays. While the lack of a change during the season indicates that the coaches found the balance acceptable, a mid-season change is obviously more disruptive than an open camp competition that produces a new starter with plenty of practice reps. I would argue that Fuller’s lack of dynamism was severe enough that outweighed his sure hands and another returner should get an opportunity in that spot. Likewise, Ahmed might deserve more chances to return kickoffs. Kyler Gordon, who redshirted this season, was an electrifying kick returner in high school and ought to get a look, as well.

As bad as UW was on special teams in 2018, some of the areas for improvement are low-hanging fruit. If Whitford stays in the lineup and Horn improves the touchback percentage to average, that will be enough to drag UW out of the gutter. If Horn stretches the team’s FG range by 10-15 yards and a new punt returner breaks a handful of tackles, we might even be able to call the unit average.