Greg Byrne's Wildcat Wednesday
Outlook Part 9 - Special Teams
By: Arizona Athletics
Release: April 12, 2007
Photo Courtesy: Arizona Athletics
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Special Teams ?- Coordinator Joe Robinson


Arizona has had the league-leading punter each of the past two years in Danny Baugher and Nick Folk, and now that tale is over. The Cats need to replace Folk, who primarily was the place kicker for three seasons, but was a do-all kicker with talent and smarts.


So far the identification process has narrowed to redshirt freshman punter Keenyn Crier and junior kicker Jason Bondzio, with a true freshman place kicker who has Arizona bloodlines arriving in August.


The Cats have had good special teams under coordinator Joe Robinson. Last year UA was second in the Pac-10 in kickoff returns, third in punting, third in punt returns, solid in field goal kicking, perfect on PAT tries and third in kickoff return defense. But there’s a reason they call it the “kicking game” and Arizona’s kickers will be first-time players when it opens the year at Brigham Young.


Special teams coordinator Joe Robinson
“I believe Keenyn has as good a leg as I’ve ever seen on a freshman kicker,” Stoops says. The contention bears up in practice, and he looked solid in spring ball. Gaining the necessary poise and verve to do it game-action when there is an onslaught of opponents bearing down is the next step.


For his part, Bondzio has been kicking with Folk for three years and knows the drill. He doesn’t have Folk’s 50-yard leg, but Stoops said he’s solid from 40 to 45 yards in. Consistency here will be the key.  Alex Zendejas, whose uncle Max of the same name is a revered place kicker in UA history thanks to a half-dozen game winners including a handful against ASU and one on the road to beat Notre Dame, arrives in the fall and will get a shot.


Kick return whiz Syndric Steptoe is gone after compiling about 1,350 yards taking back punts and kickoffs for four years (and totaling 3,931 all-purpose yards). That experienced break-away threat will be missed. But, plenty of candidates exist to take his place. Early bets are receivers Mike Thomas or B.J. Dennard, or one of the young defensive backs such as Devin Ross, Cam Nelson or Mike Turner.


Steptoe got his training as a true freshman, and made some early mistakes, but developed into a first-team All-Pac-10 threat by his senior year. UA has guys with his open-field ability, and the leader in ball security and consistency ?- especially at punt returner ?- will likely earn the job.  


Robinson, Stoops and staff don’t experiment much in manning special teams. They find the flyers, hitters and mistake-free players and stick with them. Young guys can earn a spot on kicking units and earn some stripes, but they’re nearly always among the best players on the squad for the roles. Most units go three deep but substitution is the exception rather than the norm.


In the return game, spring ball saw some auditioning by redshirt freshman cornerback Mike Turner, sophomore corner Devin Ross and offensive skill guys Chris Jennings and B.J. Dennard.  Thomas, Ross and Dennard have some experience in games. Senior cornerback Antoine Cason could be a safety-valve punt returner, too, thanks to his ball-security training and ice water mentality from living on the pass-coverage islands. All are capable and offer different styles of threats.


Defensive ends coach Robinson coordinates the whole special teams effort, although most of the other position coaches also have a hand in some specifics, notably on the interior line play and protection schemes. Look at it this way: the more pairs of eyes watching how kicking plays develop makes for better consistency.


Top Specialists

P      Keenyn Crier, 6-1, 180, Fr-RS

PK    Jason Bondzio, 5-9, 168, Jr., SQ

LS    Garon McHone, 6-4, 269, Sr., 1L

Hold Keenyn Crier, QB Jimmy Bevell

Ret   Mike Thomas, Mike Turner, Devin Ross, B.J. Dennard, Chris Jennings

Fall Recruit:  PK Alex Zendejas, 5-11, 175, Fr.


Kicking-Game Notes... This will be the first time Arizona opens the year with first-time kickers since juco transfer punter Ryan Springston and sophomore PK Mark McDonald started kicking in 1997.  (But McDonald handled kickoff duties in 1995, and redshirted 1996)... Special-teams tackle leaders included Devin Ross (7) and Cam Nelson (4) along with James Alford (3)... Redshirt freshman RB Glyndon Bolasky comes to mind when projecting kick-cover specialists, with outstanding speed. His high school sidekick at Tucson’s Sabino, H-back Brooks Reed, also appears to have that special-teams glint in his eye as a hitter...  Senior Matt Richards has lettered twice as a special teams player. The walk-on tight end also played some defensive line in his career and has been a travel team member for most of his career... The Cats would like to block some kicks. It’s been a while since the heydays for this one. UA did not block a kick in 2006 or 2004 and had two blocked punts in 2005. Part of that is the ?'return’  unit trade-off ?- holding guys back to be blockers for the returner-runner rather than sending them after the kicker...Incoming fall receiver William Wright’s nickname, “Bug,” is coined for his open-field breakaway style, and he could get a look on special teams as a return man, among other speed-merchant guys.

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