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2022 Season Preview Part 4: Special Teams
With veteran specialists at punter and kicker, can Cal turn to new faces for help in the return game?
Part 1: How badly does Cal need Justin Wilcox to turn the corner?
Part 2: Defense
Part 3: Offense
Early in the 2021 season, special teams errors were direct contributors in multiple close losses. Snap/hold issues on kicks, short punts, long returns, they all added up in losses to Nevada, TCU, and Washington.
But later in the year, special teams performances improved, led primarily by steady performances from specialists Jamieson Sheahan and Dario Longhetto. Heck, Cal even demonstrated a sudden knack for rushing the punter, blocking two punts on the season. By the end of the year you could argue that special teams were, if not a strength at least not a weakness.
2021 in review
Dario Longhetto’s kicking - 10/11 in his career inside 40 yards, 5-8 from 40+, 40/41 on PATs, and the one was blocked. You just can’t realistically ask for more from a college kicker.
Punt returning, generally. Cal forced 4.3 punts/game last year, which is a lot . . . yet finished 87th in the nation in total returns attempted, and 80th in yards/return. In other words, most punts were fair caught and the few that were returned didn’t get very far. Add it all up and Cal finished 112th in punt return efficiency, the only special teams unit that was obviously below average nationally.
2022, Unit by Unit
Presumed punter: Senior Jamieson Sheahan
In his first (abbreviated) season, Cal’s punt unit struggled. But in 2021, Jamieson Sheahan added 5 yards/punt to his average, and without giving up anything more in the return game as Cal’s net punt average also rose by 5 yards.
The result was a punting unit that rose from bad in a 2020 small sample to roughly nationally average over the entire 2021 season. With Sheahan back you would expect Cal’s punting unit to at least be nationally average, and perhaps a touch better.
Presumed punt returner: Justin Baker?
By reputation, Justin Baker seems like exactly the kind of guy you’d want at punt returner - the right mix of speed with change of direction and open field instinct. But per reports, Jeremiah Hunter and Lu-Magia Hearns have also gotten looks, so who knows who will trot out on September 3.
Presumed placekicker: senior Dario Longhetto
As noted above, all you can ask from a college kicker is “nail the shorter kicks, give us a shot on longer kicks,” and Longhetto did exactly that. Cal also seemed to get their snap/hold issues that caused some problems early in the year sorted out after a few games. With Slater Zellers back there’s no real reason to expect anything but strong performances from the kicking unit.
Presumed placekicker: senior Dario Longhetto
Last year Cal had a relatively low touchback rate and kicks were shorter than the national average . . . but coverage was fine and Cal didn’t really allow any meaningfully long returns. Maybe this was by design, but I suspect it’s mostly a factor of solid coverage. In any case, more of the same is completely fine.
Presumed kick returner: whichever wide receiver is the fastest
There haven’t been any reports yet from fall camp that I’ve heard regarding specific return assignments, so I must sadly punt on making a guess. Typically this is a job that goes to the fastest guy on the team who can reliably catch a football. Maybe Jeremiah Hunter? Sure, he’d be solid.
Can Cal get something going in the return game?
Nikko Remigio got close a few times but for penalties (and did finally get a return TD vs. Sac. State), but generally speaking tended to fair catch or kneel for a touchback more often than not.
That may have had more to do with coverage than with Nikko’s strengths or weaknesses as a returner. But regardless of the reason, Cal could really benefit from a kick return game that more regularly provides a very young offense with plus field position. And for the same reason that Cal fans are optimistic about wide receiver talent, it’s not unreasonable for Cal fans to be optimistic about what some of the younger skill position talent might do as a returner this year.
Does it matter that Cal doesn’t have a special teams coach?
Cal fans were generally quite pleased with Charlie Ragle’s recruiting successes, but maybe less pleased with special teams performances, and the perception that he was maybe more a recruiter than a special teams coach. Regardless, Ragle is off to Idaho State as the new head coach of the FCS Bengals, and Cal elected to use the vacant slot on the coaching staff on another defensive backs coach.
Special teams not getting a ton of explicit attention isn’t super unusual - it’s generally understood that punters and kickers learn from camps and outside coaches rather than from coaches on staff at their school. And I’m sure that somebody on staff is in charge of organizing coverage and return units.
Still, a special teams coach can make a difference. I assume SOMEBODY on staff last year played a role in Cal’s sudden ability to rush the punter. Is that dude still on the payroll? Regardless, you can’t help but wonder and worry just a little bit . . .
Predicting special teams is a fools errand - it’s a collection of maybe 20 odd plays a game that don’t necessarily have anything to do with each other, and many of them are largely perfunctory, like an extra point or a touchback.
Swing 3 or 4 plays from last year and Cal’s special teams look excellent. Swing 3 or 4 plays in the other direction and things look really rough. Such is the inherent nature of special teams.
The two units that teams have the most direct control over should be at least average and potential strengths: punting and field goal kicking. Such is the luxury of returning solid specialists. The units where teams have less control (because you can have Devin Hester but if the opponent can kick the ball through the endzone or hang a punt in the air for 6 seconds it doesn’t much matter) are areas that Cal struggled with last year. Maybe some roster turnover will open up new possibilities.
In total, special teams really should be at least average in total, and potentially better. Heck, if every unit is average but Dario Longhetto is money as a field goal kicker from all over the field, that’s a special teams unit I’ll take every day of the week.