Cal Football 2020 Preview: Special Teams

What will we see from a group of largely new, untested specialists?

Happy Monday everyone! A few quick plugs as we rumble towards the first game of the season:

  • If you’re not doing so already, you should follow the @writeforcal twitter account, where Owen Kaminski has been doing a great job of collecting all of the limited info coming out of fall camp.

  • We’ll have gamethreads up each weekend for folks to hang out and discuss college football games around the nation, and we’re having fun experimenting with commentary live streams. This past weekend we watched a shockingly dull Sonny Dykes game and talked Cal football. This is all a build up to our ultimate goal of live streaming Cal games this year. Since we can’t gather together to watch Cal football, why not take the opportunity to gather online to watch?

Previously in our preview series: No Frills Football ; The Offense ; The Defense

Charlie Ragle would no doubt bristle at the insinuation that he is a recruiter first and a special teams coach second. Nevertheless, his ability to bring impact players to Berkeley is unquestioned, while Cal’s special teams performances are . . . more questioned.

That was particularly the case last year, when a struggling punting unit caused the Bears to lose the field position battle more often than not. And with another year of return units that largely didn’t make any impact, there has been low-level grumbling from Cal fans who haven’t enjoyed plus special teams since DeSean Jackson left for the NFL.

Is that grumbling likely to change in 2020?

2019 Special Teams, revisited

Strengths

Punt returner

Nikko Remigio emerged last year as a solid punt returner, averaging more than 10 yards/return and coming up with a couple of positive returns in important spots. It’s been a long time since Cal had an above-average punt returner (like, say, the Tedford days?) and with Nikko back it’s nice to not have to particularly worry about the punt return unit.

Weaknesses

Punting

Cal returned a punter (Stephen Coutts) who was coming off an excellent 2018 season, but perhaps thanks to an early-season injury Coutts just never retained his junior season form. As a consequence, Cal had one of the worst net punting averages in the country and regularly lost yardage on punt exchanges.

Field goal kicking

This doesn’t really bear a ton of relevance for 2020, but it’s worth noting that last year Greg Thomas hit just 60% of his field goals longer than 30 yards.

Unit Summaries

Punter: junior Jamieson Sheahan
Field Goal Kicker: sophomore Dario Longhetto
Kickoffs: Longhetto/redshirt freshman Nick Lopez/freshman Ronan Donnelly
Kickoff Returner: Marcel Dancy?
Punt Returner: junior Nikko Remigio
Long Snapper: sophomore Slater Zellers

So here’s the deal: I held special teams for last in part so that we could get more news from camp about how the many position battles might get decided. Cal brought back exactly two starters from their six specialist positions - long snapper Slater Zellers and punt returner Nikko Remigio. Every other spot is a wide open competition. And since practices aren’t open and Cal hasn’t had a media availability for special teams coach Charlie Ragle, we’re left guessing.

Wilcox himself picked out Dario Longhetto as the leader in Cal’s field goal kicker competition, and Aussie Jamieson Sheahan has been declared Cal’s starting punter. But there’s been zero word that I’m aware of regarding both kickoffs and kickoff returns. If Longhetto has won the placekicker spot there are good odds that he’ll also be in on kickoff duty, but at the same time Cal and Wilcox are fully willing to have different guys handle each task.

The same goes for kickoff returns. Marcel Dancy did handle exactly one kickoff last year and would presumably be a reasonable choice, but it could just as easily be any skill position player on the entire team. Typically you just pick your fastest guy - there’s a reason it was sprinter Ashtyn Davis over the last few years - but no word from camp yet. Stay tuned.

Defining Questions

What will Cal get out of their new specialist?

If you’re a pessimist, you can be forgiven if you regard special teams play this season with lots of apprehension. Dario Longhetto wasn’t able to beat out Greg Thomas last year, even when Thomas struggled as a kicker at times. Now he’s the starter. Cal’s newest punter has never punted in a live game before. Those are two data points that might reasonably lend towards skepticism.

If you’re an optimist, you would point out that neither player was handed the job without competition. If Longhetto does hold onto the starting job, he will have beaten out two other kickers with a reasonable high school pedigree. Sheahan beat out Longhetto, who looked like a perfectly solid punter when he played in place of an injured Coutts last year. And honestly, playing legitimate Aussie-rules football probably means more than punting in high school games anyway.

Either way, we don’t have any on-field data to project performance. Be prepared for anything and everything.

Can Cal get Nikko more space to return punts this year?

As noted in last year’s special teams review, when Nikko Remigio had space, he came up with a good return, but he was forced into more than his fair share of fair catches. We know he has the instinct and speed to make solid returns - can the punt return unit give him space more often in 2020?

Final Outlook

Special teams play under Justin Wilcox has generally been very consistent, in that Wilcox seems to work very hard to make special teams as unimpactful as possible. Save for the occasional field goal, few things that happen on kickoffs and punts have had a really big impact on Cal games over the last three years.

That low-impact special teams trend started to leak a little last year, when Cal had a series of games mid-season in which bad field position and missed field goals had a materially negative impact on Cal’s chances of winning games.

And when you look at the profiles of the teams in the Pac-12 North, you see lots of teams with defenses that are ahead of offenses and you start wondering if we’re going to see a whole bunch of low scoring slug-fests in which field position swings and the ability to hit a critical field goal might indeed take on outsized importance.

When you’re breaking in a bunch of new specialists with unproven track records, the safest bet is to hedge towards prior performance. And while I continue to think that high-end special teams play would be a great complement to the style of football Justin Wilcox plays, I do appreciate that his teams generally avoids the kind of special teams meltdowns that you see across the country every fall Saturday. Expect more low-impact, low drama special teams from Cal . . . and keep those fingers crossed whenever it’s time to attempt a field goal in a one-possession game.