2021 Cal Football Season Review: Special Teams
As the season went on, Cal replaced muffed snaps with blocked punts, but will that level of play carry over to 2022?
Way back in August, my hope was that Cal special teams would simply not hurt Cal’s chances. Unfortunately, it took a couple of weeks, but the unit got there eventually and actually made a few high impact plays by the end of the year. Now is the time to take it all in collectively.
My Non-Bold Prediction
All in all, I’d expect Cal special teams to at least return to a more normal state of low risk, low impact that has characterized the majority of the Wilcox era. Cal probably doesn’t have the specialist talent to make special teams play a true weapon, but the baseline of solid-and-not-harmful seems likely with everybody back.
Punting: 40.2 net yards/punt, 48th in the nation
Punt returns: 43.7 net yards/punt allowed. 7.1 yards/return
Kickoff returns: 25.8 yards/return, 11th in the nation
Kickoff returns allowed: 20.2 yards/return, 68th in the nation
Kickoffs: touchbacks on 36.2% of kickoffs, 94th in the nation
Field goals: 80% made, 41st in the country
Field goals allowed: 63% made, 17th in the country
Average starting field position, offense: own 27 yard line, 114th in the nation
Average starting field position, defense: own 29, 63rd in the nation
Net field position: -2.2 yards, 94th in the nation
SP+ special teams rankings: 32nd, 3rd in the Pac-12
FEI special teams rankings: 42nd, 5th in the Pac-12
Special teams in 2021 were impactful, in good and bad ways. Good ways like kickoff return touchdowns, blocked punts, and recovered fumbles. Bad ways like muffed snaps and critical punt returns allowed. Early in the season, special teams plays directly impacted three different close losses. Later in the season, the performance of the unit improved, though their performance was often overshadowed in games where the final score wasn’t close enough for the unit to stand out.
The holistic rankings (SP+ and FEI) both saw Cal special teams as moderately above average. I don’t generally put a ton of stock in the advanced stats here, because special teams is just too tough to evaluate, whether unit-by-unit or collectively. There’s just so much statistical noise and so few plays.
What kind of noise? Well, even basic measures like average starting field position are impacted by non-special-teams factors like offensive and defensive success and turnovers. Outside of ultra rare events like blocked kicks/punts, Cal can’t particularly control things like opponent kickoffs, opponent punting, and opponent field goal accuracy.
So what can we say? Let’s go unit by unit.
Solid improvement all around from 2020, as Jamieson Sheahan improved his punt average, Cal forced a higher percentage of fair catches, and allowed fewer long returns. To be clear, this across-the-board improvement moved Cal from bad to slightly above average, but that’s still a relevant, positive improvement.
Cal’s punt return unit was significantly impacted by going up against good punters and/or randomly facing punters having great games - Cal was 124th in the nation in yards/punt against. That’s not something the Bears could control, but it’s disappointing that Cal couldn’t turn all of those long punts into any meaningful returns, as Cal only returned 14 of 52 kicks, and for a mediocre 7.1 yards/return.
In short, Cal’s punt return unit generally struggled, with one improtant caveat - the Bears blocked two punts. One was the disastrously unlucky 4th down conversion against Washington State, but the other was against Oregon State that directly contributed to Cal’s home win over the Beavers.
Cal’s ability to force touchbacks was limited, but the Bears made up for it with generally solid coverage. This was a largely unimpactful phase of the game for Cal.
Here was a bright spot - while Cal didn’t field a ton of returnable kicks, when Nikko Remigio did elect to return them he generally did a solid job. A touchdown against Sac State obviously stands out, but there were solid returns against Oregon, Colorado, and UCLA as well.
So let’s start with Dario Longhetto, who had an excellent year as a placekicker. 7-7 inside 40 yards, 4-7 on kicks of 40+ yards, 31-31 on PATs. It’s hard to ask of more from a college kicker. One of his misses was a nothing-to-lose 55 yard attempt at the end of regulation against Washington that was right on the edge of his range.
Unfortunately, we can’t not mention the struggles of the unit collectively - bad snaps/missed holds on kick attempts directly impacted Cal’s season. A failed PAT snap/hold cost the Bears dearly vs. TCU. The same issue probably costed Cal 3 points and a potential regulation win over Washington. Cal appeared to have ironed out the issue by mid-season, but the early season mistakes stung.
Questions to ponder as we enter the off season
Who will be Cal’s next return specialist?
With Nikko Remigio off to Fresno State as a grad transfer, Cal will have to identify a new kickoff and punt returner. Collin Gamble and Jeremiah Hunter are two players that have been listed on the depth chart at various points, but they got just one return each in 2021 and you’d have to imagine there will be an open competition over the off-season. Might we see a younger player like J. Michael Sturdivant or Justin Baker get a shot?
How much improvement can Cal get out of their returning specialists?
Jameison Sheahan and Dario Longhetto are veterans now, with proven performance records. There’s plenty of value in that, and I don’t think anybody will complain about more steady play. But if Longhetto can add a little bit of leg or more long-distance accuracy, both on field goals and on kickoffs, that could go a long way. If Sheahan can add a bit of distance or a bit of hang time, that could be quite valuable.
It’s not something you can count on; there are plenty of players who establish themselves in their 1st or 2nd season, then maintain that level of play through their college career, and that’s fine. But if they both improve, special teams could go from net neutral to net positive.
What impact will Cal’s new special teams coordinator have?
After five years under Charlie Ragle, Cal will have a new special teams coordinator in 2022. We don’t yet know who that person will be, or whether Cal will go after a coach who is a recruiter first or a special teams guy first, but either way the hire will certainly have an impact on the unit in some capacity. Check back later when Cal actually makes a hire so that we can look at the resume and try to parse the tea leaves.
Remember when Desean Jackson returned that punt against Tennessee? That was fun
I'm waiting on pins and needles for news and analysis of the coaching changes. Whose doing what and what might it mean? We've all read before that the quality of special teams in college depends a lot on your depth. If you have 3 deep of quality at LB then you have big fast bodies to play ST. Cal hasn't had this quality depth much in the past few years. Other than the skill players, we need big fast strong dudes on ST.