After a notably poor statistical showing during the 2018 season, the Washington Huskies special teams took significant steps and drastically improved during the 2019 season. Under Chris Peterson coached teams, special teams was always considered a strong point. Petersen would even coach returners himself, showing the high value he placed on the unit. Despite the transition to a new head coach, we can probably expect to see much of the same approach in 2020 as Bob Gregory returns for his fifth season as the Huskies’ special teams coordinator.
The 2019 season saw Washington’s kick return game improve substantially, from 112th in average return yardage to 30th, while their yards per punt improved from 74th to 20th. However, both the primary players that contributed to those two stats are now gone. So, can the Huskies improve even further after posting some very good numbers in 2019?
After three seasons in which punter Joel Whitford used his Aussie-style punt to great effect for the Huskies (in addition to the more traditional spiral punt), the former JUCO transfer has exhausted his eligibility. In his final season at the UW, a healthy Whitford managed to boot an average of 45 yards per punt, good enough for 2nd best in the Pac-12. His punting abilities will be missed.
Thanks @UW_Football for an opportunity of a lifetime. The coaches/players for the best 3 years of my life. Husky nation for supporting me along this journey. Coming here was the best decision of my life and I cant wait to see what the future holds #GoDawgshttps://t.co/9wpSAScyHO— Joel Whitford (@joelwhit12) January 31, 2020
In addition to having the seventh most career receptions and receiving yards in Washington’s history, the Huskies will also have to replace Aaron Fuller’s significant contributions as a punt returner. After stepping in during the 2018 season to replace arguably the greatest punt returner in college football history, Fuller ended up posting some very good return numbers in 2019. He finished the season averaging 11.4 yards per punt return and also returned one punt for a touchdown. He was named to multiple season ending lists, including second-team All-Pac-12 and honorable mention All-America as a punt returner.
Other notable losses to the special teams include four-year long snapper AJ Carty (if you don’t know who I’m talking about, that means he was really good at his job), and kick returner/RB Salvon Ahmed.
Junior college transfer Triston Brown will likely take the reins as the starting punter this season. Don’t be surprised to see some contributions from the senior veteran Race Porter as well, but the coaching staff gave Brown a scholarship for a reason. That, and kicking guru Chris Sailer rates Brown as the best incoming punter in the 2020 class.
Given that the Huskies needed to replace the Carty’s long snapping duties, the coaching staff ended up extending a scholarship offer to two star prospect Jaden Green out of Mesa, AZ. He was the third highest rated long snapper in the 2020 class. And because I know you want to see some long snapping film on Green... Check this out:
Punting with UW long snapper Jaden Green https://t.co/tN3ge64u7j via @YouTube— Joel Whitford (@joelwhit12) May 19, 2020
Yet to be mentioned in this article but hands down the most key returner on special teams this season is place kicker Peyton Henry. After having decent accuracy and poor distance in 2018, Henry converted 19/21 field goal attempts last season and also connected on all 49 extra points. If you’re curious, both misses came in the win against Oregon State. Henry’s 90.5% FG accuracy was good for 7th best in the country. The Huskies didn’t try a ton of long kicks with Henry, but he proved to be very effective in the range they were comfortable with. Chris Petersen tended to prefer having his QB’s kick pooch-punts instead of lining up for longer field goals, but maybe that’ll change under Jimmy Lake.
Sophomore place kicker/kickoff specialist Tim Horn also returns in 2020. Horn secured a touchback on 56% of his kickoffs last year. This really helped a defense that had a slow start to the season. Given that Horn has a bigger leg than Henry, it’s fair to wonder if he’ll get some chances on longer field goals this season.
Other notable returners include punter Race Porter and kick returner/RB Sean McGrew. Porter might punt a bit but will likely be the primary place holder, a role he occupied for most of last season. For McGrew, trust is a big element of who coaches select to be their kick/punt returners. Over the past three seasons the veteran RB has proven to the coaching staff that he can protect the ball while still being capable of breaking off the occasional return. In three seasons he has 25 kick returns under his belt for a combined 536 return yards. In 2019 he averaged 25.3 yards per return and had a long of 42 yards, both career bests.
Position Battle to Watch
It seems a safe bet that Brown will beat out the veteran Porter for punting duties, and with Green penciled in at long snapper and quality returners at all the other positions, the only remaining question is who will return punts? Redshirt sophomore CB Kyler Gordon did it in high school. Maybe Sean McGrew or junior WR Terrell Bynum steps in? Nobody else on the returning roster returned a kick or punt for UW last year, so Lake and Gregory will have a decision to make on that front.
Projected Depth Chart
PK: Peyton Henry (field goals), Tim Horn (kickoffs)
Punter: Triston Brown, Race Porter
Kick Return: Sean McGrew, Terrell Bynum
Punt Return: Terrell Bynum, Kyler Gordon
Long Snapper: Jaden Green, Luke Lane