The recent history of special teams for the Arizona Wildcats is not exactly a great one, but the past couple of years have been the exception to the rule, with two guys showing great consistency in the punting and kicking games.
In 2016, UA will look to continue that trend while replacing both outgoing seniors, and also turn the return game into an actual threat.
Key losses: Casey Skowron, Drew Riggleman, Jose Romero, Jared Baker
Key returners: Josh Pollack, Nick Reinhardt, Tyrell Johnson, Nate Phillips, Samajie Grant, Shun Brown
Key newcomers: J.J. Taylor
Let’s start with the main attraction on special teams, the kicker and punter. It seems there will be a pretty good chance that redshirt sophomore Pollack does both, although both special teams coach Charlie Ragle and head coach Rich Rodriguez would rather that not happen.
"Well, we would prefer not," Rodriguez said on Friday. "But if he’s the best punter and kicker, he will do both. We’ll just try to find someone else to do kickoffs. The competition’s still ongoing."
"In a perfect world, we would probably wish that he doesn’t do both," Coach Ragle also said. "Right now we have some good competition for that kicking spot."
One person that came out as an option for kickoff is redshirt sophomore Edgar Gastelum from Arizona Western CC and Cibola HS in Yuma. In the limited time that we’ve been able to watch the kicking drills in practice, Pollack seems like he has by far the best leg and accuracy of the group, while Gastelum struggles with chunking the ball on field goal opportunities.
Pollack did kick off twice last year and made his only extra point attempt in blowout game situations, so he’s not entirely new to the situation. Of course there weren’t any pressure on those particular kicks either.
Whoever ends up being the place kicker, former quarterback and current tight end Matt Morin seems like the frontrunner to be the holder.
"I don’t know how accurate he is, he’s kind of throwing it all over the place, but he’s got a strong arm and he can run," Rodriguez explained of the decision to put Morin there. "He’s a big physical guy and he’s got good hands."
Coach Ragle said that Morin had never been a holder before, but did work on it the entire summer. Snapping the ball to Morin will be Nick Reinhardt. Backing him up will be Donald Reiter, a walk-on from Brophy (Glendale, AZ). The backup holder right now appears to be walk-on quarterback Zach Werlinger.
This has been a huge weakness for the Wildcats the last few years. Arizona has only returned one kickoff for a TD the last two years, and that was an onside kick that Cayleb Jones took to the house against Washington State in 2014.
In 32 kick returns in 2015, the average yardage the ball came back was only 22.8 yards. Tyrell Johnson was responsible for the longest return of the year by far, taking back a 56-yarder against USC. However, on four other returns in that game, he only averaged 21 yards.
Johnson figures to be in line to be the primary returner this year along with guys like Nate Phillips, Shun Brown, Samajie Grant, DaVonte’ Neal, and possibly true freshman J.J. Taylor.
"J.J. Taylor is a guy that I think is going to turn some heads," Coach Ragle said of the freshman. "There’s some other guys besides the usual suspects, but obviously having some veteran guys that have some experience is a beneficial piece of it as well."
The Wildcats certainly have no shortage of quick, shifty, smaller guys that could be dangerous in the return game, if they ever got the blocking they needed.
"We gotta get guys in there that can execute the scheme and we gotta pay attention more to the detail of it," explained Ragle. "It’s just getting the right personnel in there and really focusing on the details, but it starts with personnel."
"I think it’s just effort," Phillips added. "Kickoff return is a big effort thing, and we’re going to take pride in making this a unit where we’re going to see some bigger returns. We’ve got guys like J.J. Taylor coming in who’s very explosive. And TJ Johnson, we know how fast he is with the school record in the 60."
"So we’ve got guys that can go the distance and I think it’s just everybody else just needs to put in a little more effort and we’ll be there."