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Season in Review: Special Teams

A Black Mark Becomes a Bright Spot

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

Everywhere you look on the 2019 Washington Husky football team, you see steps backward from the 2018 conference champions. The five losses were a major step in the wrong direction and took UW out of contention in the Pac-12 North far too early. The defense stepped back early in the year with an inability to tackle in the box, though they eventually rounded into form. The offense didn’t show the growth in the passing game that fans hoped with a bigger, stronger QB, and the lack of Myles Gaskin took away the best security blanket.

The one area where there was undeniable progress was on special teams. The Dawgs were abysmal in the third phase in 2018- bad at field goals, kickoffs, returns, and punts. It was hard to fathom how a team that was so efficient and well-coached in so many parts of the game could be so consistently bad in this one. Even without a designated Special Teams Coordinator, it’s clear that the coaching staff dedicated time and effort to reversing that trend in 2019 and it worked. Let’s take a look at how a major weakness became a strength without an overhaul in personnel.

What We Expected

Frankly, there wasn’t much reason for optimism coming into the year. Peyton Henry returned and kept the place kicking job. He had adequate accuracy and poor power in 2018 and it was hard to see how he could be much different in 2019. Aaron Fuller remained as the primary punt returner with his maddening proclivity to fair catch everything in his catch radius. Sean McGrew and Salvon Ahmed served as kick returners after subpar performances in that facet in 2018. Better health from Joel Whitford and the addition of Tim Horn as a kickoff specialist were the only clear areas where improvement seemed possible from a personnel standpoint.

What We Saw

Even with largely similar players, the special teams output took a dramatic turn for the better. Let’s start by looking at the punting game. Aaron Fuller kept the return job that he held in 2018. That year, the Huskies were 109th out of 130 in average punt return yardage at 5.3 yards per return. This year, Fuller dramatically improved to 11.4 yards per return and a TD. That brought the team average to 10.7 yards, good for 35th in all the land. The Huskies were similarly good at punting the ball away. Whitford stayed healthy and handled a larger portion of the punting duties. As a result, the Dawgs went from 40.5 yards per punt (74th in the country) to 44.6 yards per punt (20th). The coverage unit was every bit as good at limiting returns- only 4.9 yards per return, the 22nd best average in the land. The Huskies also downed 40% of their punts inside the opponent’s 20 yard-line against only 28% coming the other way.

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

The kicking game also saw a dramatic uptick. Peyton Henry made 19/21 kicks on the season, including 2/3 over 40 yards (and a 49 yarder against Cal). The only two misses came against Oregon State, but he bounced back nicely and didn’t miss another kick after that game. Henry’s 90.5% FG accuracy was good for 7th best in the country. Even though the Dawgs still didn’t attempt a huge number of long kicks, Henry showed that he had enough leg in those situations that it didn’t work as a major limiting factor for the offense.

Henry ceded his kickoff duties to Tim Horn and that area was immediately, drastically improved. Horn secured a touchback on 56% of his kickoffs. Last year, Henry only got touchbacks on 33% of his kicks. Those touchbacks made a consistent difference in opponent starting field position, which was crucial for a defense that took some time to get its feet under it. Finally, even the kick return game improved substantially, from 112th in average return yardage to 30th.

What We Learned

My hope coming into the year was that the Dawgs could improve enough to get to average in overall special teams performance. I thought that Horn’s leg strength could generate more touchbacks, Whitford’s health would keep Race Porter’s wobblers on the sidelines, and a bit more assertiveness in the return game would be enough to get out of the cellar in so many areas. Instead, the Huskies somehow went from very bad to very good in every special teams category. As amazing as it is that they struggled so badly before, the stark turnaround is even more shocking. Even more impressive is the fact that so many of the same players made drastic improvements to their own performances. I was extremely hard on Henry as a placekicker and Fuller as a punt returner, but both turned their performances around. Henry, in particular, is someone I never expected to see perform at this level. Kicking is psychologically fraught, and I didn’t think he would ever overcome his role in the 2018 loss to Oregon. Not only did he reverse the trend, he has apparently locked down the position for the foreseeable future.

What To Expect

As mentioned above, the kicking game looks set for the next couple years. Henry can handle place kicking duties and Horn can continue to man kickoffs. It will be interesting to see if Horn gets some chances on longer field goals in the future. He had good accuracy when he arrived at UW and could be used on opportunities that are out of Henry’s range. Likewise, Sean McGrew was a solid kick returner and should resume that role next season.

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

With Whitford’s graduation, incoming freshman Triston Brown looks to be the heir in the punting game. Kicking guru Chris Sailer rates Brown as the best incoming punter in this class. Sailer’s track record is very good, so Brown ought to be able to keep the punting game strong.

Finally, the punt return position looks wide open with Fuller’s graduation. Kyler Gordon has some experience as a returner from his high school days. McGrew’s name could also be thrown into the hat. Nobody else on the returning roster returned a kick or punt for UW last year, so Jimmy Lake will have decisions to make on that front.