Arizona football depth chart: Special teams hinging on Jake Smith

Matt Kartozian-US PRESSWIRE

Jake Smith will aim to take both the kicking and punting duties, while the Wildcats continue to search for a playmaking threat in the return game.

Under the final Mike Stoops years, the special teams game floundered. Rich Rodriguez's first year was about cleaning it up from a technical standpoint. While games weren't necessarily won because of special teams in 2013, they weren't lost because of them.

Key losses

John Bonano (kicking), Kyle Dugandzic (punting)

Key returners

Jake Smith (kicking/punting), Daniel Jenkins, Jared Baker, Johnny Jackson, Garic Wharton

Key newcomers

Davonte' Neal (potentially)

The question now hinges on what more can come of the Arizona Wildcats' third unit. Every position seems open for analysis into the season-opener against Northern Arizona, but the most worrisome positions have to involve the kicking game.

Decent-enough kicker John Bonano put the Alex Zendejas era officially in the rear-view mirror, but he's exhausted his eligibility. So too has punter Kyle Dugandzic. The replacements for the duo are looking more and more like a singular rather than a plural.

Jake Smith, a transfer from Youngstown State and previously Syracuse, looks to be the likely starter at both kicker and punter.

That in itself carries reason for concern. Not only are kicking and punting duties generally relegated to two men because of fatigue and specialization purpose -- Smith is coming off an ACL surgery that took him out of all of 2012. The good news is that Smith injury himself before last season, meaning he's nearing a full year removed from the surgery.

Smith told the Arizona Daily Star's Daniel Berk this month that he's being held back from taking too many practice reps. The dual-threat special teamer said he's confident he can handle both duties, and working out with NFL kicker Billy Cundiff this offseason helped that confidence grow.

Though Smith is more of a kicker by nature, he does have high school experience in the realm of punting and walk-on Drew Riggleman, from Sahuaro High School, will challenge Smith in the latter as the only true punter on the roster.

But in terms of pure talent, it appears that both jobs are Smith's to lose. Of course, the coaching staff could decide to limit Smith. That's an option that could be weighed all the way to the season-opener -- maybe beyond.

Options aplenty in return game

Last season, Richard Morrison handled the punt return duties but seemingly lost his handle on the job toward the end of the year. Bobbled catches and a seeming lack of confidence not only lopped him from the punt return team, but led to a flip from starting wide receiver to cornerback.

To find Morrison back on the punt return team would be surprising.

Who could be a solid replacement? Namely a guy who started to come on as receiver as Morrison faded. Former walk-on Johnny Jackson, who earned a scholarship this year, has the sure hands to be considered a favorite to win the punt return job, and cornerback Jonathan McKnight has also been toyed with as a punt return man in the past. And if Davonte' Neal's eligibility ever becomes clear, pencil him in immediately as a top option.

Rich Rodriguez has generally made the kick returning job into a reason for the backup running backs to show up with Ka'Deem Carey taking all the offensive reps. Daniel Jenkins, who decided not to transfer, is back, as is Jared Baker. Jackson also had a role on the kickoff return team, and he could return there if he doesn't become the punt return man.

Garic Wharton figures to be in the conversation because of his speed, but it's unclear if Rodriguez will want him involved if he's going to be a major part of the first-team offense. Freshman receiver Nate Phillips, who has been turning heads in practice as a slot receiver, also could be in the conversation -- he was a kick and punt return specialist at Basha High School.

Whatever the case may be, Rodriguez will have a diverse set of options. Whether anyone becomes what would loosely be defined as a playmaker remains to be seen.

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