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2018 Cal Football Preview: Special Teams

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Cal’s special teams in 2017 were mostly characterized by competence and conservatism. Is there room for improvement in 2018?

NCAA Football: Mississippi at California Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

Last year, Cal special teams were largely an exercise in risk management. With the exception of some long Matt Anderson field goal attempts, Cal special teams didn’t seem to be asked to do a ton, and were neither a strength nor a weakness.

With Anderson and Dylan Klumph gone, with potentially special kick returner Demetris Robertson no longer in Berkeley, and with a coordinator known more for recruiting, this doesn’t seem like the type of season to expect amazing special teams performances. Perhaps a veteran team will also lead to more veteran coverage and return blocking units, though this is the type of development that is impossible to predict or anticipate from our vantage point.

Note - all sections below will include FEI efficiency rankings, which adjust for strength of schedule, sample size, and other adjustments to try to create a holistic number. Don’t take it as gospel, because special teams is notoriously subject to sample size gremlins no matter how you try to quantify it. But don’t dismiss it either.

Field Goal Kicking

2017 national rankings
74% field goal accuracy, 64th in the nation
FEI field goal efficiency: 45th in the nation

Matt Anderson followed up his arguably-best-in-Cal-history 2016 with a good-but-not-great 2017, which is a reminder of the inherent randomness of college level placekicking. His kicking was better than his 64th-best-in-the-nation accuracy because Justin Wilcox allowed him to attempt more difficult kicks than the national average. Anderson attempted 14 field goals of 40+ yards (and was, unsurprisingly, 12–13 on field goals within 40 yards).

Having a guy who is close to automatic from inside 40 and reasonably good from 40+ is a luxury that many college teams don’t have—and it seems unlikely that Cal will have anything like that this season. As reported by Rusty Simmons, it’s a four way battle between returners Gabe Siemieniec and Chris Landgrebe, and newcomers Dario Longhetto and Greg Thomas. That two kickers were added later on is an indication of how unsure the staff is about replacing Anderson. It wouldn’t surprise me if we end up with a short kick and long kick specialist situation, or perhaps an offense that goes for it way more often between the 25 and the 40 . . . or maybe we’ll get a ton more pooch punts. I really don’t like pooch punts.

Verdict: Expect fewer long–field goal attempts and lowered field goal percentage generally in 2018

Kickoffs

2017 national rankings
Average distance: 63 yards/kick, 37th in the nation
Touchback %: 46%, 49th in the nation
Average opponent return yardage: 21 yards, 75th in the nation
FEI kickoff efficiency: 38th in the nation

Gabe “i before e” Siemieniec handled the majority of Cal’s kickoffs and was generally pretty excellent—with consistent distance and placement. Cal’s coverage teams were fine—if unspectacular—rarely stopping a returner with a short gain, but just as rarely allowing returns of any significant length. It all adds up to a unit that was solidly above average.

With Siemieniec back and with a generally veteran team, I would expect Cal’s kickoff coverage to be at least as good this season.

Verdict: expect improved production in 2018

Kickoff Returns

2017 national rankings
Average return yardage: 20.5 yards/return, 79th in the nation
FEI kickoff return efficiency: 90th in the nation

One of the better hurdlers in Cal track and field history, Ashtyn Davis handled the vast majority of Cal kickoff returns last year. Entering his senior season—and with Demetris Robertson off to Georgia—we have no reason to expect that Cal will be going with somebody else on kickoff duties.

Davis is almost certainly the fastest player on the team and that’s by far the most important aspect of kick returning (see this excellent Chart Party for more info on why), so if this unit is going to do better, it’s going to be more about improving kickoff unit blocking.

But can Wilcox pass a rule that nobody is allowed to return any more kicks out of the end zone please?

Verdict: Expect similar production in 2018

Punting

2017 national rankings
Yards/punt: 42 yards/punt, 59th in the nation
Net punting: 37.2 yards/punt, 79th in the nation
Yards/punt return allowed: 10.5 yards/return, 104th in the nation
Punt return attempts allowed: 17, 62nd in the nation
FEI punting efficiency: 85th in the nation

This is, by a pretty wide margin, the biggest potential area for improvement on special teams. Dylan Klumph was the primary punter last year—and was pretty good about getting distance on his punts (Cal’s team average was hurt a touch by some short Ross Bowers pooch punts). But whether because his kicks were lacking in hang time or because of a coverage unit that struggled to get downfield, Cal was one of the worst units in the country at preventing opponents from getting off decent punt returns. Cal didn’t allow a punt return touchdown . . . but only five teams without a TD return allowed had a worse yards/return number.

Dylan Klumph is off to punt in Arizona, leaving senior Steven Coutts as the presumed lead punter. It’s pretty silly to try to extrapolate anything from Coutts’s four punts from last season (all against Washington, one of the best punt return units in the country last year), but he was a solid punter at Louisiana before transferring to Cal.

Verdict: Coutts’ punting is probably not going to be significantly different from Klumph, but can Cal improve their downfield coverage?

Punt Returns

2017 national rankings:
Yards/punt return: 9.9 yards, 34th in the nation
Total punt returns attempted: 9, 114th in the nation
FEI Punt return efficiency: 63rd in the nation

Vic Wharton handled all punt returns last year and was pretty darn conservative when deciding whether or not to attempt a return. Again, one can debate whether or not this is a factor of having mediocre blocking in front of him, but the reality is that Cal only attempted a return on about 20% of the punts they received.

Summary

If Cal can find themselves a reliable field goal kicker or two, expect more of the same in terms of low risk, low reward special teams. But also steel yourself for the possibility that placekicking will be an adventure for the entire season. #collegekickers applies to even veteran stalwarts, let alone a four-way competition that has walk-ons in the mix.

But without any obviously standout specialists added to the mix, it’s hard to project any obvious areas for improvement unless each unit improves as a whole. If nothing else, kickoffs should be mostly stress free and we know we have a reliably safe punt returner. That’s not nothing, and considering past special teams disasters, conservative and low impact is A-OK with me.