Welcome to the first positional previews post that we'll give you as the Arizona Wildcats await the season kickoff kickoff on Saturday, Sept. 1, against the Toledo Rockets. First up, it's the biggest and baddest (literally) unit we don't really want to talk about because
Zendejas Zendejas Zendejas it's painful to rehash. We're talking special teams, which does include the odd-balls that use their legs to kick the football really far, sometimes through a goal (that is what the tall, yellow pronged device at the end of the field is for, in case you were wondering).
Key returners: Kyle Dugandzic, John Bonano
Key additions: Jake Smith
The goal is simple, the message clear. Rich Rodriguez knows that his team, across the board, won't have the freakish talent such as that of a USC or an Oregon, who can put their home-run threats on the field in kickoffs and punt returns.
The Wildcats didn't have that last year, either. But hoping to change from the past few years, Arizona wants to concede nothing -- not an inch or a point -- to opponents because of its special team units. Home run threats or not, Rodriguez doesn't want the special team squads to be a weakness. This season, they are being processed and analyzed by pretty much the entire coaching roster, as Ryan Finley wrote last week.
The idea? Execute smoothly and practice to prevent miscues.
Per Finley's piece:
The UA's margin for error will be razor-thin this fall, putting an ever greater emphasis on the little things - and special teams are the biggest "little thing" in the sport.
Said Rodriguez: "There's no question that for us right now, we've got to be able to make plays in special teams and be really solid there to have a chance."
Obviously, making plays only goes so far.
Finley wrote last week that Rodriguez has yet to look at the return-game options as they are first getting a solid handle on operating to avoid mistakes.
And as far as the return game goes, there are options. Ka'Deem Carey returning kickoffs last season looks like a good idea again (who can be against giving Carey the ball in the open field?), and if Rodriguez wants to save him for the offense, Daniel Jenkins and Kylan Butler, among others, could be shifty threats to get some big momentum swings.
Or if low-weight speedster Garic Wharton can prove himself to Rodriguez, the Wildcats may have one of the fastest return men in the Pac-12.
On the punt return side, you'd think Arizona will go with someone who at least will catch the ball without trouble. David Douglas is now fielding punt returns in New York Giants preseason games, so it's still a slot to fill. Richard Morrison has experience in that role, and a sure-handed guy like Tyler Slavin might be a solid option as well.
Then there's that whole kicking conundrum.
Alex Zendejas is gone, and his 2011 replacement, John Bonano, made Mike Stoops look like a stubborn man when he proved to be a solid option to kick field goals and, extraordinarily, extra points; remember, this was at the decision of interim coach Tim Kish.
The Wildcats, you probably know, probably left more points on the table than any other team in D-1 (I don't know how to find those statistics, but I can't imagine the Wildcats were far from the leaders last season considering the high volume of touchdowns they scored).
Jaime Salazar, who struggled in his own right last season, is still on the roster, but the man to watch is junior Jake Smith, a Youngstown State transfer who also spent 2010 at Syracuse. Smith could challenge Bonano to be the Wildcats' field goal kicker.
The best, most stable piece across the special teams units? Perhaps the Wildcats' savior to a defense that will likely struggle is Kyle Dugandzic, the senior punter who can kick it high with touch, or boom it for more than 60 yards.
As a whole, the special teams units have questions. Oddly enough, it feels as if Arizona will finally be able to have confidence in its kicking game -- they'll at least be competent. While the return men haven't been selected yet, there are options to perhaps break one or two returns for touchdowns.
So long as the players are conscious that conceding a fair catch is better than risking it, or executing a coverage lane is better than trying to make a hero tackle for a big hit, Arizona will be fine. At the least, the head coach will be open to adjusting should his kickers find it hard to make extra points.