Special teams are often the black sheep of any football team. Nobody would argue that special teams have as much of an impact as offense or defense, but there’s still a huge part in each game for those players to play.
Last season, Arizona’s special teams could best be described as mediocre. Lucas Havrisik was a pretty good kickoffs guy, J.J. Taylor scored a touchdown on a kickoff, and everything else was pretty bland.
Havrisik and Josh Pollack could never quite figure out place kicking, combining to miss eight of 27 field goals. Dylan Klumph and Shun Brown ranged from average to good in the punting and punt return games, respectively, but neither is back. Where does that leave the team in 2019?
Taylor will still be returning kicks, and he’ll probably be the best part of this unit. He averaged 24.5 yards/return last season, including the aforementioned TD. Anyone who’s seen him knows of his shiftiness and speed, two of the most important qualities in a return man. The job is his to keep, and chances are he does pretty well.
Another familiar face will be Havrisik. He had 60 touchbacks on 74 kickoffs last season, and the rest of the unit only allowed an average return of 21 yards if he didn’t reach the end zone. The only real black mark was his two kickoffs out of bounds, a number that has to be pushed to zero if possible.
Speaking of Havrisik’s accuracy, it hopefully improved this spring when kicking field goals. Splitting the job with departed senior Pollack in 2018, Havrisik was all over the place. He went 22 for 24 on PAT’s, giving him a pretty horrible percentage of 91.7 on those gimmes. He went a slightly disappointing 3 for 4 on field goals shorter than 40 yards (albeit with a small sample size), and went only 3 for 7 from beyond 40 yards.
Havrisik’s leg isn’t a cannon, but he has the power to be a real asset. If the accuracy gets dialed in, the team will feel a lot better in close games.
When it comes to punting, every name will be new this year. One of those new names is Kyle Ostendorp, a freshman punter from the Phoenix area. Klumph, a graduate transfer from Cal, gave head coach Kevin Sumlin and special teams coach Jeremy Springer a year to find their new punter, and he performed pretty well across the board.
Ostendorp may have some growing pains in 2019, but he was one of the best punters in the class and should be the cornerstone of the special teams unit once he’s an upperclassman.
And that leaves the punt returner, where most of the uncertainty remains. Brown was a pretty exciting player to watch whenever he was sent back to field a punt, and his loss will be felt there as well as in the receiving corps. Who will take his place? It’s hard to tell. It’s possible Taylor fills into that role as well. Perhaps Cedric Peterson or Stanley Berryhill III, two receivers who fielded kickoffs, will take over. Or a new face, such as a cornerback or even something crazy like shifty backup quarterback Jamarye Joiner. We’ll find out soon enough, but I’d bet on Taylor.
So where does that leave the Wildcats? It’s a good thing Taylor is returning, because he is one of the more underrated returners AND running backs in the nation. Ostendorp is so much younger than Klumph, but he’s at least as talented, meaning that transition won’t be too rocky. Most of the rest just depends on Havrisik working on his accuracy. He’ll be a junior, so he should improve over last season. That could be key, as UA lost twice by one point, and those two losses becoming wins would’ve made 2018 look very different.