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The Sacramento Report: Special Teams Stat Master!

Anybody else feel like it's just a matter of time before J. Ross takes one to the house?
Anybody else feel like it's just a matter of time before J. Ross takes one to the house?

The San Francisco Giants once again depressed Grid Club attendance, but a little thing like a world series appearance wasn't going to stop die-hard Cal fans from talking a little football after an underrated victory!  So with our loyal bartender/hostess supplying cell phone updates (Wait, you said it was the GIANTS that scored 8 runs?!?) we watched impressive highlights of Cal dismantling Arizona St., heard from probably the most engaging coach thus far this year, and from a guest speaker who can challenge John Crumpacker for general knowledge of Cal football history.

This week the Grid Club got to talk to new special teams coordinator Jeff Genyk and former Cal beat writer Jake Curtis, who currently blogs about the Bears for The Examiner and at  Unfortunately due to technical difficulties we were unable to hear from Paul Buker of the Oregonian.

Note:  As always, all guest responses are paraphrased based on my notes and best recollections.

Jeff Genyk

What I found most interesting about Coach Genyk was the amount of numbers he had at instant recall.  While talking about his respective special teams units, he was able to quote countless stats about their current level of play and national rank, which seemed to be a big motivating factor for him.  Hearing about how special teams have improved with quantified numbers was very heartening.

Thoughts on special teams successes and failures against Arizona State:

A perfect game in special teams is very rare.  We did a good job against ASU but there were a few flaws.  The return team blocking was excellent for Keenan Allen and Jeremy Ross - there have been huge holes for Jeremy, and he's been very close to breaking a couple of touchdowns.  We've been very happy with punt coverage.  We came into the ASU game #7 in the country and if there hadn't been a missed block on Anger's punt we would've been #2 after the game.  We've also been very happy with kick coverage.  Last year average starting field position against Cal was the 34 yard line, and it's been cut down to the 24 yard line so far this year.

Regarding Giorgio Tavecchio's improvements on kick offs and field goals:

He's so close to being 11-12 on field goals and having one of the highest percentages in the nation, with two kicks that hit off the inside of the uprights.  Giorgio wasn't lacking natural talent, but he had some self doubt going into this year, so we needed to work on his confidence.  We ran drills to try to simulate the pressure of a field goal, where if he missed his mark the entire team would have to run sprints.  The idea is that when a kicker misses a big kick he has to go back to the locker room with all of his upset teammates who played hard for 60 minutes.  That drill helped simulate that pressure.

How do you select players for special teams?

Because they changed the kickoff line less kicks reach the endzone and it changed field position, so you absolutely have to have good athletes on special teams.  We usually have a few defensive starters on our coverage team with some backups.  Our goal is to keep the returner inside the 23 yard line - We've found that when our opponent starts from inside the 23 their drive is much less likely to result in points than if they start past the 30.

How do you motivate players and get them excited to play special teams?

I started by showing them footage of special teams from last year's bowl game, and how those errors helped cost us a win.  Then I described my own Rose Bowl experience with Northwestern, and how that was probably my best football memory.  I asked them if they wanted that memory.

We're also cognizant of our national rankings, and use that as motivation.  We want to have the best coverage team in the country, the best yards per punt return in the country, etc.


Jake Curtis

Jake was a Cal beat writer from 1990 until very recently and the nearly 20 years he's spent closely following the program has left him with an impressive catalog of Cal history that may even challenge OhioBear!  He opened by describing his history with the program and his take on some of the important events he covered in the past:

-He left the Chronicle because he thought the paper was going to fold, but here it is a while later and it's still producing more or less the same content it did a few years ago.
-When he first covered Cal he came in only knowing that Cal wasn't very good, and that Coach Bruce Snyder was potentially on the hot seat, only to watch Cal have some of their most successful years since the 50s.
-He's never seen an AD less aware of what was going on around him than Bob Bockrath, who was totally convinced that Bruce Snyder was going to stay right until he was told that Snyder had accepted a job offer from Arizona State.
-Keith Gilbertson:  A good offensive coordinator, but a bad head coach.
-Tom Holmoe:  A good athletic director, but a bad head coach.

Jake offered some thoughts on an all-time Cal team from the years he covered them.  Here are his picks:

QB: Mike Pawlawski and Aaron Rodgers.  Rodgers is the better pro QB, but Pawlawski was incredibly tough, both mentally and physically.  When he suffered an injury I asked him if he was going to wear a pad over it, and he said "No man!  It's bad enough that I have to wear shoulder pads!"
RB: Russell White, his junior year.
TE: Tony Gonzalez, the only NFL Hall of Famer (soon enough) he ever covered.
WR: Sean Dawkins
LB: Jerrott Willard, who somehow did what he did essentially without knees
CB: Syd Quan Thompson and Deltha O'Neal, who takes his title as the single best player he covered at Cal, with the raw athletic ability to play pretty much any position on the field.
P: Nick Harris.  Harris claimed that he had the ability to kick the ball so that it would always bounce exactly 90 degrees to the side from where it landed. That sounds impossible, but the results on the field indicate that there might have been something to his claim.

Thoughts on Kevin Riley:

A good guy, and he understands the game very well.  After every play Riley can always describe what he should have done - and he's always right - but he doesn't always do that right thing in the moment.

Thoughts on Cal vs. Oregon St.

It's a chance for Riley to ahve a good game because OSU's defense just hasn't been very good.  Losing James Rodgers is HUGE because of his talent as a special teams returner.  Losing him will have a major impact on OSU's field position.

I think Quizz is the best running back in the Pac-10 because he does what he does even when the entire defense is game planned to stop him - he's incredibly strong.

In terms of predicting the game - the only thing I know is that cal won't blow out Oregon State.  I can see Cal winning a close game, or Oregon St. winning a close game, or Oregon St. winning a blowout, but I'd be surprised if Cal blew them out . . . except they just might, and that's how unpredictable Cal has been this year.