Because of their short amount of time on the field, it’s easy to overlook special teams’ importance to the squad. They’re only on the field a handful of times a game, and most plays end up in a predictable fashion. But for a struggling team like Cal football, it is imperative that special teams play efficiently and set the tone for the entire team early with a big play.
A good example of this came in the Bears’ opening day matchup against visiting Northwestern. On its opening drive, Cal found itself in a fourth and five in the redzone.
Few objected to Sonny Dykes’ decision to send placekicker Vincenzo D’Amato out on the field to boot in an easy field goal. This was smart and safe football. This would be the recommended play if Dykes selected the “Ask Madden” option.
But Cal’s full of surprises. Although the surprises have usually been disappointing, fans were treated with a trick play when D’Amato faked a kick and received the pitch from placeholder Jackson Bouza. Then D’Amato proceeded to roll to his right and draw in three startled defenders. As that was happening, Bouza ran forward and found himself wide open for an unlikely D’Amato-to-Bouza connection.
Although Northwestern would come back to tie the game two minutes later and eventually won, Cal kept it close throughout the entire game and gave its fans hope. The play jump-started the entire team’s performance.
As evidenced by its historically poor performance last season, this team’s going to need all the help it can get. If the Bears can gain an upper hand through the play of special teams, that can lead to producing more wins.
Before Cal can set itself up for big plays, it first needs good field position. This responsibility will largely be placed in the foot of junior punter Cole Leninger and whoever wins the starting job as placekicker.
Because the Bears often suffer three and outs, Leninger saw a lot of action. With 5.75 punts a game for a net average of 42.9 yards per punt, Leninger was heavily relied upon to punt the ball far away and at least give the defense a shot to try and stop the opposing offense. Entering the 2014 season, Leninger shows no sign of slowing down and is expected to be a valuable asset in giving the Cal defense space to work when the offense fails to gain much yardage.
With D’Amato graduating, the coaching staff is going to have to find a new starting placekicker. What Cal needs is the player with the strongest leg strength so he can kick the ball far and high to get a lot of touchbacks.
That way, the Bears can prevent dynamic returns from opposing teams and set their defense up with workable field position. At this point in the offseason, this role will be decided among sophomore Noah Beito, senior James Langford and freshmen Matt Anderson and Robbie Mclnerny.
But no matter who the starter is, it remains to be seen exactly how many field goals Dykes will elect to take. If Cal is faced with a situation in which the team is trailing big and in need of fast points, it is highly possible that Dykes will choose to go for it on fourth and short instead of playing it safe and punting or kicking a field goal.
On the other side of special teams, junior Bryce Treggs and sophomore Khalfani Muhammad appear to be the obvious options to man the duties at kick- and punt-returner, respectively. In terms of speed and creating plays, these are the best that the Bears have to offer and if anyone on the team is going to break free and score on a 60-plus yard return, it’s them.
Kicking, punting and returning aren’t areas Cal should be worried about. Leninger has the power to punt it high and far every time. There is solid depth at kicking, and Muhammad and Treggs are two of the fastest players in the Pac-12. The area in special teams with the most question marks lies in all the other bodies that will take the field during these plays.
Right now, there is no set list of names of who will be up. But the majority of the blockers and defenders who will be participating on special teams will be the younger underclassmen, many of whom will be new recruits. This recruiting season, the Bears have recruited with the goal of becoming more athletic.
This season, the special teams for Cal will be bigger, faster and stronger. But that does not necessarily mean that it will translate into more positive results. In order for that to happen, the Bears will need to duplicate what they did against Northwestern — utilize trick plays and use their creativity and advanced planning to gain the upper hand.
Contact Richard Lee at [email protected].