Cal Football Position Battles: The Specialists

For all the talk that the "3rd phase" of the game is just as important as offense and defense, Cal special teams play has been underwhelming for years.  Coach Tedford finally made a change last year by replacing long-time coach and favorite scapegoat Pete Alamar with Jeff Genyk. 

Although it seemed like the squads were better coached, the on-the-field results remained maddeningly inconsistent.  We took a closer look at them here.

It's hard to say whether special teams suffers from personnel issues, coaching issues, or doesn't get enough time in practice.  There has been a notable improvement in esprit de corps with players taking pride in being selected for the special teams packages.  However, using 1st teamers is a double-edged sword;  you can't argue with talent, but there's only so much time for players to get comfortable with the game plan. 

It's also unknown whether the new emphasis on having 1st/2nd teamers replace practice squad guys during game preparation limits their ability to also get special teams reps.  It really did seem like special teams play was solid early and became increasingly ragged as the year wore on.  Perhaps the improved recruiting classes will start to pay dividends here by providing quality backups who are able to focus more exclusively on their special teams responsibilities.

 



Specialists:
Bryan Anger(Sr, Punter) - Absolutely great leg.  When he's on, he can be a game-changer for us by helping to win or shift the field position battle.  For some reason, the perception is that he's good for one shank per game.  True or not, he has had his issues with consistency.  Although some of this could be attributed to his former position coach, there shouldn't be any excuses for a senior with his 2nd year under the same coach.  He also hasn't shown a knack for pinning teams deep like former great Nick Harris was able to do.

Giorgio Tavecchio(Sr, Kicker) - Little Italy has had some well-documented gaffes.  I don't think anyone would feel truly comfortable with him lining up for a critical kick.  But, his overall stats are competent by Div-I standards.  Tyler Frederickson is known as the hero of the 3OT upset over 'sc and hit the winning kick in the Insight Bowl, but he was only 15-30 as a senior.  Tavecchio was 11/16 (69%) last year, including 3/4 from 40+ yards.  Most kickers take time to mature and develop.  Previous Cal greats Keen and Longwell struggled early and put it together later in their careers.  Tavecchio greatly improved his kickoff distance last year.  We'll just have to hope that he also improves his accuracy and consistency as a senior.

Vince D'Amato(Jr, Kicker) - Provides depth.  Hasn't been consistent enough to beat out Giorgio.  May get his opportunity as a senior.

Matt Rios(Jr, Longsnapper) - The fact that no one knows his names means he's doing a good job.  This spot is solid for another year.

Jed Barnett (Fr*, P/PK) - Averaged over 50 yards a punt as a high school senior.  With his strong leg, has also been practicing as a placekicker.  Might eventually follow in the dual-responsibility mold of previous Cal kickers Frederickson, Longwell, and Keen.

Returners: 
Sofele(?), Allen(?), Edmond, Clay, McClure/Jackson/Willis(?)  It's a big debate between playing your best players and trying to save guys from injury.  Considering our depth issues at TB, I think Sofele gets excused here.  Allen is one of our most explosive players, so I'd be okay with putting the ball in his hands, especially as a punt returner.  With so many young WR's and CB's that have excellent ball skills, I'd imagine that we'd use 1-2 in the return game. 

Projected Starters:
Anger - Punter
Tavecchio - Kicker
Allen - Punt Returner
Edmond/Clay - Kick Returner

Overview: 
It's probably unfair to judge a position coach based solely on one year.  I was encouraged by the reports from last year's camp with regards to Genyk's energy and attention to detail...only to be subsequently discouraged by inconsistent punting, less than clutch field goal kicking, and somewhat porous coverage teams. 

With another stellar recruiting class and a year of experience in the system for last year's players, you'd have to expect an improvement here.  Both the kicker and the punter are seniors - if you're ever going to get competent play, you'd think this would be the year.  Sadly enough, the backups are unproven. 

In the case of injury (remember when Tom Schneider got hurt?), we could have some serious issues.  Looking ahead, be careful what you wish for;  we might find ourselves desperately missing Anger/Tavecchio next year.


Final Thoughts:  The uncertainty swirling around the team is exciting, hopeful, and frightening all at the same time.  There are new coaches for WR, QB, Oline, Secondary, and Strength/Conditioning.  We're not sure what the offense will look like or whether the new gameplan/playcalling by committee approach will work.  In several key areas, we're looking for new starters and will need to count on unproven youngsters to step up;  QB, RB, RT, C, DE, DT, OLB, ILB, S, Nickelback, Dimeback.  Although the Pac-10 is notoriously cruel to new starters, we're relying on bringing in proven winners as new position coaches and the best two-year run of blue-chip talent in Cal history.  Oline and WR should be fine.  Secondary is unknown, but promising.  S & C is a bit under the radar, but might prove to be just as or almost as important as Coach Tedford taking a personal hand w/ the QB's or Coach M's return.  Even so, reasonable expectations should be the buzzword for the coming year.  We're too young at too many key spots.  I think many of us would be okay with a 7-8 win re-building season provided that the team looks well-coached and competitive.

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