For something like Cal football’s special teams, it’s easy to point out the flashy, exciting pieces and be optimistic about the 2015 season. Last year, the Bears saw the emergence of Trevor Davis, and he showcased his speed when he returned two consecutive kick-offs against Washington State for touchdowns.
It doesn’t take Davis very long after catching a punt/kick-off to reach full speed and make a highlight happen. And with trackstar Khalfani Muhammad and speed threats Bryce Treggs and Tre Watson in the mix, Cal is very explosive and stacked when its opponent is giving the ball back.
But scoring points isn’t really a problem for the Bears. With its fast-tempo offense and diverse talent at the skill positions, the team is usually expected to score close to 40 points a game consistently. Whether or not the team has good starting field position, an offense that passes most of the time with a quarterback that completes 62.1 percent of his passes is going to eat regardless.
For the special teams unit to have a truly special season, it will need improved production from the other, much less flashy side. In order for the Bears to put themselves in the best possible situation to win their games, rising senior punter Cole Leininger will have to improve on his average of 39.8 yards, which was below the FBS average.
Last season, kicking field goals made up very little of Cal’s game plan. But it makes sense that an offense as successful and aggressive as the one the Bears have won’t use its kicker as much as most other teams do. During James Langford’s only season with Cal, he attempted just 17 field goals. Of those attempts, he managed to convert 11 of them. From 39 yards or less, Langford was automatic and made all seven of his tries, but from between 40 and 49 yards, he went 4-8. Langford missed both of his attempts from beyond 50 yards.
So, unless the ball was near the 25 yard line or closer, Langford was a shaky option. And having the ball from between the opponent’s 25- to 50-yard line is too close to punt. So it’s understandable why the Bears went for it on fourth down 28 times last season. And even when Cal had the ball on fourth down from within 25 yards, it was likely to go for it anyway because the team is more confident with the ball in Jared Goff’s hand than at a kicker’s feet.
As a result, Langford didn’t get many chances last year. Most of the action he saw was taking the PAT and kicking off after a touchdown, where he was strong at forcing the other team to start at the 27-yard line on average. Up next on the depth chart, with Langford gone because of graduation, will be Noah Beito, Matt Anderson, Franklyn Cervenka and Robbie Mclnerny. But with the offense projected to improve even further, it does not seem likely that a new placekicker will get many chances in a system comfortable with the offense on the field during fourth down.
The X-factor for special teams this upcoming season will be Leininger. It’s no secret that the Bears struggle on defense. Relative to its offense, the Bears’ defense isn’t as reliable. The defense is a liability, and Cal is most vulnerable when its defenders are put in a position where their backs are close to the end zone.
If he protects it through his punting, Leininger can help fix the Bears’ reputation as a team that has a weak defense. If Leininger can consistently give his defense a quality starting position, it will force opponents to work harder to score, and they’ll need to string together multiple big plays to score. If Leininger can make this happen, Cal’s defenders can attack their opponents rather than wait for them to score quickly and easily in a shorter field.
Davis will probably have a big return every few games. But the Bears’ chances for success will rest on Leininger’s right foot. Leininger won’t show up on the highlights or make it on ESPN’s “Top Ten,” but his performance will be crucial in making sure that one of Cal’s biggest weaknesses won’t be exposed.
Ritchie Lee covers football. Contact him at [email protected].