Mark your man: Special teams

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Special teams, returning:
Keenan Allen could do a lot of damage as the projected full-time punt returner — that is, if the opposing teams decide to kick the ball to him.

Like DeSean Jackson and Jahvid Best before him, Allen has the potential to be a game-changer on special teams. Yet the preseason All-American candidate doesn’t have a great track record, or much of a track record at all. He only returned six punts in his first two years, with a long of 12 yards. But with the speed, array of moves and ability to gain considerable yards after catch he has shown as a receiver, Allen is likely to see those numbers go up. He also wasn’t the primary punt returner last season — that role fell to then-senior Marvin Jones.

Allen had much more success as a kick returner his freshman season. He averaged 22.6 yards per return on 18 kicks, with a long of 61. But the junior did not return a kick last season and is not expected to this season.

Brendan Bigelow and Mike Manuel return to handle the kick return duties. Bigelow, a sophomore tailback, was a speedster at Central East High School in Fresno, Calif., before a knee injury cost him his senior season. As a freshman, he took 23 kickoffs with an average of 20.7 yards a return. His 88-yard return for a touchdown has to be diminished, though, as it occurred against Presbyterian.

Manuel, meanwhile, is more steady than flashy. The senior receiver averaged 21.5 yards on a dozen returns. Manuel came on late in the season, returning five kicks for more than 100 yards in each of the Bears’ final two regular season games. His longest return at 32 yards came in the Holiday Bowl.

Redshirt freshman Daniel Lasco is currently the backup, while freshman Bryce Treggs is behind Allen.
Grade: C+
— Jonathan Kuperberg

Special teams, kicking:
That Cole Leininger has big shoes to fill is an understatement, both figuratively and literally.

The freshman punter, currently first on the depth chart, is following in the footsteps of Bryan Anger. A four-year starter and three-time first-team all-conference selection, Anger was drafted by the Jaguars in the third round of the 2012 NFL Draft, the highest pick for a punter since 1995.

Given the pedigree of Leininger’s predecessor, maybe it’s a good thing that the Fruit Cove, Fla., native has a cool demeanor.

“He shows little to no emotion,” said head coach Jeff Tedford. “‘Do you ever smile?’”

Joking aside, Tedford said he has been pleased with Leininger’s practice so far. A two-step punter, Leininger has been kicking with good hang time, according to Tedford.

Leininger, who is listed at 6-foot-1, 200 pounds, was a second-team All-American as a senior at Bartram Trail High School. A three-star recruit from ESPN, he averaged 42.7 yards per punt in 2011.

The situation is somewhat reversed at the place kicking position. Vincenzo D’Amato, despite kicking the ball just once in the past two seasons, still has the experience of being a redshirt junior. He came in a year after Giorgio Tavecchio and was always just a little bit behind Tavecchio, who signed with the 49ers as a free agent in May.

As a freshman, D’Amato shared the kicking duties with Tavecchio. That season, D’Amato connected on 7-of-12 field goals, with a long of 47, and made both of his tries in the memorable Big Game victory. In 31 attempts throughout his Cal career, he has yet to miss an extra point — an action Tavecchio struggled with at the beginning of last season.

D’Amato will also be handling the kickoffs. He has an average of 59 yards per kick in 12 attempts with one touchback — a number that will likely go up as a result of the NCAA rule change that moved the kickoff position from the 30-yard line to the 35 and touchbacks from inside the 20 to the 25-yard line.

“We won’t see as many returns,” Tedford said. “He’s in the end zone consistently.”
Grade: ?
— Jonathan Kuperberg