Special Teams! Unlike offense and defense, special teams are divided into five mostly autonomous units that probably share players, but perform different functions. Evaluating special teams as a whole is—for that reason—perilous. So, unlike the offense and defense reviews from the last two weeks, we’re going to go function by function.
Net yards/punt: 35.9, 116th in the nation
Yards/punt: 38.8, 118th in the nation
This . . . was a problem. Cal’s punting and (more importantly) net punting both declined by about 2.5 yards each, which seems small, but starts to add up over a game and over a season. How much these numbers were impacted by Steven Coutts’ early-season injury issues is unclear, though it’s worth noting that Dario Longhetto averaged a decent enough 40.9 yards/punt when he was splitting duties with Coutts early in the year.
Longhetto will presumably be competing with Cal’s newest Aussie recruit for full time punting duties next year and the punting unit as a whole is maybe the biggest area of potential improvement on the team.
Avg. yards/return: 11.4, 26th in the nation
Number of returns: 12, 101st in the nation
A tale of two stats. On the rare occasions when Cal actually returned a punt (10 for Nikko Remigio, 2 for Ashtyn Davis) the Bears actually did pretty well. But that ‘rare’ is a problem—Cal only managed to return 12 of 54 opponent punts (22%).
To be fair, I’m having trouble contextualizing that number, because there’s actually a wide range of opponent punts forced nationally, all the way from just 34 (UMass) to 99 (Clemson). But a quick glance at the numbers indicates that Cal appears to have returned fewer punts than average.
That’s something of a trade-off—Cal could coach their returners to return more kicks and see that average fall, but getting a 4-yard return is still better than a fair catch.
At the end of the day, opponents averaged 38.7 net yards/punt, nearly a full three yards ahead of Cal’s own net punting, meaning that the Bears lost on average three yards of field position with each punt exchange. For a team built around slow play, ball control, and field position, that matters.
53 kickoffs, 22 touchbacks, 24 total returns at 22.7 yards/return, 102nd in the nation
I honestly don’t have much to say about kickoff returns. Hopefully they get legislated out of the game officially, rather than the weird situation where we still go through the motions but most kicks end at the 25-yard line. Cal’s kickoff coverage unit was below average, but not so far below average that it made much of a difference.
59 kickoffs, 21 touchbacks, 19 returns at 20.6 yards/return, 65th in the nation
Again, same story as above. Cal seemed more prone to simply taking the ball at the 25-yard line, as they signaled for a fair catch when fielding the ball in front of the end zone 19 times. Injuries may have played a role, as early-season kick returners Ashtyn Davis and Jeremiah Hawkins both dealt with injuries inthe second half of the season. Cal’s kickoff return unit was perfectly average—and it’s hard these days to do much better or worse than that.
Field Goal kicking
11–17, 64.7% success rate, 97th in the country
So: Greg Thomas went 2–2 on kicks from inside 30 yards . . . and 9–15 on kicks from 30+. That’s rough.
It wasn’t all bad, certainly. His 49-yard field goal against Stanford was critical and having a four-point lead at the end of the game absolutely changed the complexion of Stanford’s final failed drive. His three field goals from 32, 34, and 44 yards against North Texas were perhaps the difference between winning and losing in a six-point victory.
It’s also true that missed kicks from 32 and 46 vs. Oregon and 39 vs. Oregon State materially damaged Cal’s chances in close losses and that a blocked PAT and blocked kick against Wazzu allowed the Cougars to stick around in a game that was closer than it should have been.
Also, for whatever it’s worth, Cal had four kicks blocked, tied for 121st in the nation. How much of that is on blocking vs. kick trajectory I don’t know.
Summary and too early 2020 projections
Cal’s special teams ranged from unremarkable to below average and as a consequence, holistic measurements of special teams units are unimpressed. FEI ranks Cal special teams 94th and 11th in the Pac-12. SP+ puts Cal 120th and last in the Pac-12. Regardless of the exact measurement, the reality was that Cal’s special teams largely struggled in 2019 and will be a prime area for potential improvement in 2020.
Is improvement likely? Well, change is certainly coming. Steven Coutts and Greg Thomas are both out of eligibility, which means there will be uncertainty at both specialist positions. Longhetto will presumably compete with incoming Australian recruit Jamieson Sheahan at punter while Longhetto, Gabe Siemieniec, Nick Lopez, and perhaps freshman tight end recruit (!) Tommy Christakos will battle it out at placekicker.
So . . . anything could happen next year for the areas of special teams (punting and field goal kicking) that are high variability and tend to impact wins and losses. Hooray for mystery!