Can new faces improve Cal’s special teams?

Photo of Cal football kicker kicking an extra point/field goal
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There will be new sets of boots kicking balls in Berkeley this fall. Veterans Steven Coutts and Greg Thomas, the Bears’ former punter and placekicker, respectively, both finished their Cal careers in 2019.

The door is wide open for new talent and room to improve for the kicking positions.

In the last two seasons, Coutts ranked 9th and 12th in yards per punt among Pac-12 punters. Thomas was a solid option for the blue and gold, connecting on 23 of 34 field goal attempts in his time at Cal. He missed only one extra point and was occasionally inconsistent, but often performed in clutch moments, including a late game winner against Washington in 2019.

Redshirt sophomore Dario Longhetto and junior Jamieson Sheahan are the two currently being tabbed to step into the empty cleats left by Thomas and Coutts.

Sheahan is all but assured to be starting punter, earning praise from head coach Justin Wilcox for his performances in camp.

“Jamieson Sheahan has done a really good job,” Wilcox said in a press conference earlier this month. “He’s our punter who’s never punted in a football game before, but he’s done a really good job. He’s a talented guy, we expect him to do very very well.”

Like Coutts, Sheahan is Australian, playing American football for the first time after developing his game with ProKick Australia. A former Aussie Rules player, Sheahan is no stranger to the pressures of a high-level sport. He brings a mature mentality and even multiple types of punts to the Bears special teams unit.

“I’ve been kicking the ball all my life, so the transition to the punting position has been pretty simple,” Sheahan said. “I have been working on the spiral, pro-style kick over here, that’s been the biggest transition, but we have a few kicks — a few different looks up our sleeves this year.”

The Bears’ placekicking situation is more competitive. Longhetto is the most experienced placekicker on Cal’s roster following the departure of Gabe Siemieniec to Louisiana Tech over the offseason. The situation, according to Wilcox, is not yet resolved, but Longhetto is the only player Cal’s head coach has mentioned thus far. His game experience up to this point, however, has been exclusively as a punter.

“Dario Longhetto, right now, is kicking well,” Wilcox said. “It’s still competitive at that position but Dario has noticeably improved from last year.”

While the starting punter or kicker may be new, the player giving them the ball will not. After a near perfect redshirt freshman season, Slater Zellers should hold down the fort as the Bears’ long snapper. The 6’1” product of Scottsdale, Arizona, played in all 13 games for the blue and gold last year and never had an errant snap. Just like Allstate customers, Cal’s kickers are in good hands.

The rest of the Bears’ special teams unit is a greater unknown. In years past, special teams coordinator Charlie Ragle has not shied away from getting regular starters involved with his unit.

“We have good players that play on special teams. It’s not something where the starters don’t play on special teams,” Wilcox said, praising Ragle’s work with the unit. “Guys buy into playing special teams and it’s a critical part of the game.”

Wilcox and his staff have a tendency of giving talented young players opportunities as well. Safety Daniel Scott and linebacker Evan Tattersall, two players who could start on defense this season, had plenty of reps on special teams last year. That could signal opportunities for freshmen like Trey Paster, Muleu Iosefa and Andy Alfieri, who have shown promise in camp. Redshirt freshman safety Craig Woodson could see himself chasing down opposing returners, as well.

The Bears have given similar attention to their own returners. Jaylinn Hawkins and Ashtyn Davis, both of whom are now playing safety in the NFL, featured heavily on special teams last season. Replacing either will not be simple, but Cal’s coaching staff is counting on a new batch of explosive playmakers to emerge.

“At kick returner, we have a number of guys that we’re working back there,” Wilcox said. “Some veterans who have taken some reps and some younger guys, who have got some explosiveness.”

On the Bears’ first depth chart, Nikko Remigio was listed as starting returner for both kicks and punts. Fellow wide receiver Kekoa Crawford was the back up at both spots. Remigio is no stranger to punts, as the junior has returned 27 in the past two seasons for a total of 241 yards and his longest return to date was a 46-yarder against Idaho State. Both speedy and shifty, the junior could be an asset beyond his pass-catching ability.
Regardless of who is ultimately involved with Cal’s special teams, all eyes will be geared toward victory. New and old faces alike hope to achieve more for the blue and gold.

“If I can help us win some games, the dream is to go on to win the Pac-12 this year,” Sheahan said. “If I do my role and let the defense go out and do theirs, then hopefully that gives us a chance.”

Jasper Kenzo Sundeen covers football and is the deputy special issues editor. Contact him at [email protected].