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Washington Spring Preview 2014: Special Teams

In the final installment of our Spring Football 2014 preview series we take a look at the specialists and special teams. This is often an overlooked group, but as we saw against Stanford last year it can prove critical.

John Ross is the future of Huskies special teams as he demonstrated in this 100 yard kickoff return versus BYU in 2013.
John Ross is the future of Huskies special teams as he demonstrated in this 100 yard kickoff return versus BYU in 2013.
Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

2013 Review:

After pulling triple-duty in 2012 - kickoffs, placekicks and punting - the hope going into 2013 was to scale back the workload on Travis Coons, as it was thought that he had tired over the course of the previous season which may have contributed to a couple of memorable missed kicks vs. WSU and Boise State. With heralded recruit Cameron Van Winkle in the fold, it was hoped that he could at least take over the kickoff duties, and that's exactly what happened. However a back issue sidelined after the Stanford game and Coons once again had to do triple-duty. It didn't slow him down though, as he nailed 15 of his 16 FG attempts (the only miss was blocked), including 6 of 7 from 40-49 yards out. He also was his usual steady self as a punter, averaging 40.4 yards on his 62 kicks, and more importantly contributing to a team net punting average of 38.13 which ranked 33rd in the country.

The return game was not as great however, both in returning kicks as well as coverage on opposing kicks - the Huskies basically broke even in these categories. This was a bit of a disappointment considering that the Huskies have what should be considered above average depth and talent, so there's reason to think that coaching in this area was sub-par. On the plus side, freshman WR John Ross showed hope that he can become one of the nation's most dangerous return men. After coming close a few times during the regular season, he finally busted a kickoff return for the distance in the bowl game vs. BYU, showing off his impressive speed and acceleration. He was less electric on punt returns, but WR Marvin Hall stepped in and showed off his own impressive running skills and was more sure-handed than he'd been in 2012.

The coverage units did well against punts, thanks in large part to terrific directional punts by Coons and good hang time. They were not so great vs. kickoffs, ranking 112th in the country by allowing 24.3 per return. This was never more evident than the Stanford game when they surrendered a TD return on the opening kickoff and another return of 68 yards that led directly to another Stanford TD - bitter pills to swallow in a narrow 31-28 loss.

What we said heading into last season:

After some early struggles by both kickers (partly attributable to some struggles between the snapper and holder), Coons has emerged to win the placekicking job. Van Winkle will likely see action by handling kickoffs, with the hope that he can provide more consistency and distance than Coons was able to achieve.

With the coverage units, we won't really know until August 31st who the mainstays are and how they'll do, but the thinking here is that - as a reflection of improving quality depth throughout the roster - they too will look better.

2013 Statistics:

  • Cameron Van Winkle: 33 kickoffs, 2005 yards (60.8 avg), 11 touchbacks
  • John Ross: 4 punt returns, 21 yards (5.2 avg), 10 yds long; 31 kickoff returns, 720 yards (23.2 avg), 1 TD, 100 yds TD long
  • Marvin Hall: 5 punt returns, 47 yards (9.4 avg), 19 yds long
  • Kasen Williams: 5 punt returns, 9 yards (1.8 avg), 8 yds long; 1 kickoff return, 49 yards (49.0 avg), 49 yds long
  • Jesse Callier: 1 kickoff return, 47 yards (47.0 avg), 47 yds long

Scholarship Players:

Players lost: Travis Coons - PK/P (graduated)

Players returning: Korey Durkee - P (Jr); Ryan Masel - LS (Jr) Walk-on; Cameron Van Winkle - PK (So); Luke Hutchison - LS (RS-Fr) Walk-on

Incoming players: Tristan Vizcaino - PK/P (Fr)

A Look Ahead:

Kirk DeGrasse:

He wasn't an All-American, he didn't win the Ray Guy or Lou Groza awards and he's a longshot to make an NFL roster, but you could make a pretty good argument than no player leaves behind bigger shoes to fill than does Travis Coons. From his accurate kicking, his steady punting to his surprising athleticism both in fielding errant snaps to converting fake punts on runs and passes, Coons will be tough to replace.

At punter, Korey Durkee returns, but despite possessing a big leg he hasn't punted in a game since early in his freshman season. His problem has been consistency and quickness - he takes too long to get his kicks away, and he's as likely to shank a punt as he is to kick it 60 yards. He's settled in as the holder on placekicks and been steady, but that by itself might not be worth his scholarship. At kicker, Cameron Van Winkle was highly regarded as a recruit and won the kickoff job last year, but a back issue flared up on him midway through the season and leaves his future in some doubt. This places a lot of pressure on incoming freshman Tristan Vizcaino, but he won't arrive until Fall camp, so in the meantime the coaches will look to Durkee to gain consistency and speed up his kick delivery and walk-ons will be encouraged to show their stuff.

Besides the placekick holder, the other anonymous position is long-snapper, and the Huskies return walk-on Ryan Masel in that role for his 3rd year. While a few of his punt snaps were off-target and forced Coons to make athletic plays to avoid the block, he's generally been sound in the role.

The return game has been a mixed-bag, but the returning talent in the form of guys like Ross, Hall, Jaydon Mickens and Jesse Callier, and the arrival in the Fall of Budda Baker gives hope that this can develop into a strength. We've already seen Ross bust a kickoff for the distance, and there's no reason to think he can't do more of the same in the coming years. Coverage - especially against kickoffs - has been a problem, but this is where the arrival of coach Jeff Choate leads to optimism as he's one of the more notable Special Teams coaches at the college level. He should have enough talent and depth on hand to field above-average units here.

Chris Landon:

If it seems that the Huskies have been stuck in a vortex of below average special teams play for the last - oh, I dunno - 10 years, there is a good explanation. They have.

Oh, there have been spurts of effective play. For instance, the reliability that we got out of Travis Coons in 2013 would be a good example. So would a few of the oh-so-close performances of John Ross (leading up to the tremendous BYU play) in kickoff returns. However, it has been years since anybody could honestly say that the Huskies have been average or better in all aspects of special teams: kicking and covering, returning and covering.

The prospects for improvement facing the Huskies in 2014 are not all that promising and I'm not sure that there are all that many questions to be answered this spring.

The kickoff return game looks pretty set. John Ross is your most dangerous returner right now and he can be spelled by both Marvin Hall and Jesse Callier. I guess there will be some interest to see if a guy like Deontae Cooper or Jermaine Kelly can get himself into the conversation, but I'm guessing that is a stretch. Perhaps punt returns, where our rotation is less set - especially with Kasen Williams sitting out this spring - there might be an opportunity for somebody to rise up and challenge Hall as the incumbent in that role.

Coverage units need a lot of work as the Huskies are almost certain to take a step back in kicker department. I am interested to see how well the new staff does coaching in this area as the former staff seemed to have the simple strategy of putting out their fatigued every down starters without any relevant instruction and just let them do their thing. There are guys who appear to have a knack for coverage units - Callier and Darrell Daniels amongst them - but the fundamentals in both kickoffs and punts are expected to be critical focus in the spring.

The kicking situation looks pretty bleak. The best you can say is that Korey Durkee and Cam Van Winkle are going to get a whole spring to show that they deserve to at least compete with Tristan Vizcaino in the fall once he arrives. Van Winkle is a kid that could still surprise given that we don't really understand the full extent of his back injury. If it was muscular and not disc/joint related, there is every reason to believe he can recover fully. That said, the urgency with which the new staff pursued Vizcaino at the end of the recruiting cycle is noteworthy.

Brad Johnson:

As Kirk mentions, Coons may not have gotten the credit he really deserves here at Washington. He wasn't spectacular enough at anything he did to merit a lot of mention in the years that will come, but the guy was fantastically consistent. He's the kind of player you won't really miss until he's gone.

Durkee and Van Winkle are both a conundrum. In my opinion, if Durkee doesn't outright win the punting job this fall, he needs to become a walk-on. As for Van Winkle, he needs to prove he can stay healthy, or he's destined for the same fate. I hate to say that about a couple of guys, but the fact is that specialists (a holder and a kickoff guy) among specialists can't tie up two scholarships. The time is now for both of them.

There just doesn't seem to be a reason for the Huskies to be as bad in the return game as they have been, given the dynamic athletes they have handling the ball, and the number of starters they have blocking for them. Maybe it's the fundamentals of the blocking in front of the guys carrying the ball, and maybe it's those guys looking to create big returns instead of just taking the "safe" yards in front of them (that lead to the big returns more often than the dramatic cross-field cutbacks that are featured on Sportscenter and the like). Chris Petersen has said that he'll personally coach the returners. He's got some talent to work with, now let's see what he can do with it.

While the coverage against Stanford was abysmal and might be the single biggest culprit in costing the Huskies a big road win, it was merely "not very good" the rest of the season. The yards allowed weren't actually all that bad, but the fact that so many starters had to play makes the results worse to me than the actual numbers suggest.

The depth that the Huskies have accumulated the last several seasons suggests that the special teams could wind up being strength. At least in the return and coverage games. Johnny Nansen, along with Dan Cozzetto, drew the most ire amongst Husky fans, and an improvement in coaching there could definitely pay dividends. The kicking game is a question mark, but I have to believe that even if the Huskies aren't as consistently good as they've been there under Sarkisian, they'll manage to at least be competent.