The Arizona Wildcats’ special teams unit will be under new leadership in 2017, with former Ohio State assistant Brian Knorr taking over for Charlie Ragle, who left for a special teams job with the California Golden Bears.
Special teams have been an absolute disaster at Arizona for the past five seasons, particularly in the return game.
There have only been three punt returns brought in for a score since Rich Rodriguez arrived in Tucson in 2012. Meanwhile, Arizona has had one kickoff returned for a touchdown in the past five years, and it was Cayleb Jones who returned an onside kick for a score back in 2014.
Kicking is going to be a hit or miss at this level, but it doesn’t look like Casey Skowron or Drew Riggleman are coming through those doors anytime soon.
Key Losses: Nate Phillips, Edgar Gastelum
Key Returners: Josh Pollack, Matt Aragon, Jake Glatting, Shun Brown, Tony Ellison, Tyrell Johnson, Devaughn Cooper
Key Newcomers: Lucas Havrisik
Redshirt junior Josh Pollack and true freshman Lucas Havrisik will likely compete to be the kickoff specialist. Havrisik has a big leg, but it will come down to consistency, as he averaged over 70 yards a kickoff in high school.
Edgar Gastelum, who handled most of the kickoffs last season, is no longer a part of the program after dealing with certain off-field issues.
On the kick return side, Arizona has the shifty, one-cut guys who can turn upfield, but the blocking has just never been there. When Tyrell Johnson was back returning kicks he was constantly outrunning his blockers, too.
Under Knorr, maybe the blocking can improve with Shun Brown and Tony Ellison returning. If Johnson can stay healthy, he is another candidate to return kicks. Devaughn Cooper also has the speed to get back there as well.
Field goals will likely come down another battle between Havrisik and Pollack. Pollack went 9 for 14 last season, with two of his misses coming from 40-plus yards out and three from 50 yards out.
It comes down to trust for Havrisik. If he can show the staff that he can knock down field goals consistently and earn their trust, I don’t see why he couldn’t take over as the placekicker.
Holding kicks was previously Matt Morin, however now it will likely be Zach Werlinger, who was listed as his backup on the depth chart all of last season.
The punting job seems to be up in the air. Pollack can only handle so many of the kicking duties, which might make it easier for the staff to have Havrisik take over somewhere.
Jake Glatting kicked 10 punts last season, averaging just under 40 yards on them. Matt Aragon punted three times at Washington State, averaging just under 39 yards. Aragon is also doubling as a wide receiver this season, so it’s unclear how much time he’ll split at each position.
As for punt returns, it will likely be Shun Brown taking over for Nate Phillips, who was one of the most consistent returners.
In all, the bar has been set low for special teams, so if Knorr can generate some improvement in this unit, consider it a win for Arizona.