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Football Outlook - Special Teams
Courtesy: Arizona Athletics
Release: 04/06/2006
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Courtesy: Arizona Athletics
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2006 Football - The Kicking Game

College football staffs use the services of 10 on-the-field coaches, all of whom have duties pegged to specific position players.

Then, there's the kicking game -- special teams play. At Arizona, defensive ends coach Joe Robinson spends part of his time coordinating the various units that take the field for punts, punt returns, the kickoff, kickoff returns, point-after kicks and point-after kick defense. One more special team sometimes goes into action -- the "hands" team when an opponent is expected to try to recover a short kickoff.

Then, too, there's nuance available within a unit. Do you set up for a punt return to the right side? Do you instead send your guys (who might build a protection wall for that return) after the punter for a punt-block play?  Do you hang a kickoff short, on purpose, to avoid letting a Reggie Bush get his hands on the ball? Do you pooch or rugby kick a punt for the same purpose? Do you set up the opponent for a planned fake kick later in the game? Do you sacrifice two points by taking an intentional safety on a punt, just to avoid a bigger play and to keep yourself in control of field position?

Nick Folk has 15 career FGs
Coaches always talk about special teams and their impact on a game. That's because a kick requires precision play by so many players, and because on the other side there's the potential for a game-breaking event -- a long return, a turnover, an infraction that costs field position, etc.

Robinson -- and all the UA assistants who have specific duties working with aspects of special teams -- are blessed with a couple of difference makers in 2006. Senior kicker Nick Folk and senior return specialist Syndric Steptoe have put themselves in the UA record books for productivity and big-play potential. It's a good start. If they continue their 2005 responsibilities, it puts those two in the camera's-eye for five of UA's special teams.

Folk, a place kicker with 50-yard field goal range, ended up leading the Pac-10 in punting after Danny Baugher -- the nation's leader -- was injured in the Oregon game last year. Folk didn't have enough punts to qualify for the title, but socked 22 of them for a 44.7-yard average, with eight of those downed inside the 20 yard-line. Baugher had a phenomenal year with a 47.5-yard average on 37 kicks. He was a finalist for the Ray Guy Award and was one games-played short of the official NCAA punting lead.

Steptoe rated 24th nationally with a punt return average of 11.1 yards and ranked 27th in kickoff returns with a 25.5-yard average in

Step' went 76 yards vs. USC
2005. He took a punt back 63 yards for a score against No. 7 UCLA and returned a kickoff 78 yards at No. 1 USC when he had five returns for a 32-yard average. His composure and break-away threat as the centerpiece for returns are vastly improved since he was introduced to those duties as a true freshman in 2003. That year, when Arizona gave up 56 touchdowns (and therefore received a boatload of ensuing kickoffs) Steptoe set a UA record with 28 KORs.

The Cats ranked 15th in the NCAA in kickoff returns at 23.6 yards, and were third in the Pac-10 in allowing 19.9 yards per kickoff return by oppponents (51st nationally). UA was 17th nationally in punt returns (10.8), but 112th in allowing 14.3 yards per punt return. Improving in all four will be emphasized this year.

Junior receiver B.J. Dennard could factor on kickoff returns this year. He had six for a 21.2-yard average in '05 and is clearly one of the team's best athletes. Too, UA could designate a "safe" punt returner, a guy like former receiver Richard Dice (1993-96) who coaches knew would think of only one thing: catch the ball. Steptoe's been good in that regard, but did have one fumble last year -- near midfield on a punt after UA pinned Purdue deep in its own territory. The turnover led to a Boilermaker touchdown for a 28-17 lead in a game ultimately decided by one score (31-24).

McHone, Rollmann, McQuown, Folk, Argos, Bondzio at work in practice, on their own

Whether Folk punts again this year is a question for spring ball and fall camp. Kyle McQuown transferred into the program from Idaho State last year (and redshirted) and brings a 43.0-yard average for 71 career punts. UA coaches may invite walk-on kickers to try out in fall, too. But McQuown has two years' Division I-AA experience and a track record. Folk, an adept punter as well, would prefer to focus on place kicking. He has 15 career field goals (27 attempts) including a career-best 53-yarder against Arizona State as a sophomore in 2004.

Sophomore Jason Bondzio brought outstanding prep place kicking credentials to the UA program in 2004. He redshirted that year, then apprenticed to Folk a year ago. He set a Texas all-time record with 93 straight PAT kicks and was 13-for-15 in career high school field goals. He'll push for duty this fall and gives UA a solid future at the position. He's been a travel-squad regular, ready to kick when asked.

Arizona has some work to do in one area. The Cats allowed opponents to block five kicks in 2005, and three of those were place kicks (two FGs, one PAT). That's a loss of points in a season where UA lost three games by 10 combined points. Meantime, the Cats failed to come up with a blocked kick on opponents' 61 punts, 14 field goals and 35 point-after kicks.  

Specialty Spots... The Cats bring back junior long snapper Garon McHone, who played all 11 games at the position in 2005. He'll compete with sophomore offensive guard Eddie Rollmann for that duty. McQuown and reserve quarterback Jason Argos are competing for the top holding job... Some players lettered a year ago, in part due to coverage and protection duties on special teams -- sophomore safety Brandon Tatum, sophomore receiver Gerold Rodriguez, sophomore linebacker James Alford, junior tight end Matt Richards, junior tight end Ryan Kilpatrick, sophomore guard Joe Longacre and sophomore linebacker Adrian McCovy. Coaches generally use first- or second-unit players on special teams... The team's lack of a blocked kick in 2005 was its second whitewash in the past three seasons, also missing the big play in 2003. Mike Stoops' first team blocked three kicks... Stoops says punter Danny Baugher has a chance at being selected in the NFL draft. he had knee surgery in October but has resumed kicking. The last UA punter drafted was John Nies in 1990 (Buffalo, 6th round) although current New England Patriot Josh Miller enters his 11th NFL season after signing a free agent contract with Pittsburgh in 1996. Ruben Rodriguez (1987) and Mitch Hoopes (1975) are other UA punters drafted, plus PKs Steve McLaughlin (1995) and Max Zendejas (1985) also were drafted and played in the NFL...

 

 

 

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