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2021 College Football Season Preview: Special Teams
Can Cal's most maligned unit bounce back thanks to returning experience?
Good old special teams, the ultimate low frequency, high variable unit of college football. There can be entire games where you barely notice special teams. Games where all the kickoffs are touchbacks, all the punts are fair caught, and there are no long field goals. In the past I’ve remarked on how Justin Wilcox seemed to have a special teams philosophy centered on doing just that: making you not notice special teams.
Justin Wilcox wishes that we hadn’t noticed special teams play in 2020, because special teams plays directly contributed to two of Cal’s three loses.
Against Oregon State, Cal’s punting unit had a disastrous day that granted Oregon State spectacular field position that they used to escape with a close win. Against Stanford, two blocked kicks and a muffed punt turned a likely win into a 1 point loss.
If those two games happened as part of a normal 12/13 game season, maybe everything would balance out. Maybe there would have been another game where Cal got great field position from a couple booming punts, or Nikko Remigio broke a return for a touchdown that swung the game. But it wasn’t a full season, and so instead if the 2020 season will be remembered for anything other than COVID-19 (it won’t) it will be remembered for two of the most damaging special teams games in program history. And this year, Cal fans will worry that special teams might be a weakness that could continue to cost Cal games.
Entering the 2020 season, there was plenty of reasons for skepticism and uncertainty because nearly all of the specialists had turned over. That won’t be the case this year. Thus, the main question is how much better (or not) will Cal’s returning specialists be after another year in the program.
Punter: Jamieson Sheahan
Kicker: Dario Longhetto
Kickoffs: Dario Longhetto/Tommy Christakos
Snapper: Slater Zellers
Holder: Jamieson Sheahan
Punt returns: Nikko Remigio
Kick returns: Nikko Remigio
Against UCLA, Stanford, and Oregon, Cal punted 19 time for 770 net yards, an average of 40.5 net yards/kick. If Cal had averaged 40.5 net yards across the entire season, that would have been good enough for 30th in the country. Not bad!
Against Oregon State, Cal punted 5 times for 73 net yards, which is why Cal actually ranked 107th in the country in net punting last year.
Thus - will having a more experienced punter specifically and an experienced team generally result in more good days and fewer bad days? Iffy punting has plagued Cal for two straight seasons, and unless the Cal offense finally kicks into gear it’s really critical for Cal to at least play even in the field position game if they’re going to win games in the classic ugly-low-scoring Wilcox style.
In prior years, I noted that Nikko Remigio didn’t get a ton of opportunities to return kicks. Last year, with so many returns under his belt, he seemed to make a concerted effort to return more kicks (8 out of 22) which probably explains why his average yards/return fell. His one muffed punt looms large but one muff out of 34 career returns and who-knows-how-many fair catches from a generally sure-handed receiver isn’t a significant cause for concern.
Perhaps more importantly, Remigio had a couple long returns on both punts and kickoffs taken away by penalty, which is obviously bad and frustrating for the past but exciting and encouraging for the future. It certainly feels like he has a long return or two (if not a touchdown) due to him after last year. Can his blockers give him the time and space?
For reasons I can only guess at, true freshman Tommy Christakos handled kickoffs for Cal’s first two games, before Dario Longhetto took over for the final two games. Oddly, Christakos’ kicks went longer but Longhetto got more touchbacks. Regardless, Cal neither pinned a team deep with a great tackle nor allowed a return of significant consequence and I don’t really see any reason for that to change this year regardless of which player earned kickoff responsibility or if it’s again split between Christakos and Longhetto.
Dario Longhetto stepped onto the field 15 times last year to put the ball between the uprights, and he didn’t have a single kick past the line of scrimmage that didn’t then go through the uprights.
Of course, two of those 15 kicks were blocked, both in a game that Cal lost by one point. Still, the larger point is that what scant evidence we got from 2020 indicates that Longhetto is at a minimum a solid college kicker. When you can combine consistency with a leg that’s strong enough to hit from 50 (or maybe longer?!) then you’re at least solid.
I don’t think there’s any particular evidence that Longhetto was at fault for the blocked kicks against Stanford (in case you’ve forgotten, it had much more to do with figuring out Stanford’s line overload blocking scheme) and Cal is already planning on setting Longhetto up deeper behind the line to address the issue. Either way, field goal kicking isn’t high on my list of special teams concerns this year.
Underneath the ugly topline of Cal’s 2020 special teams is some reason to suspect that the Bears should be at least average.
A blocked PAT, field goal, and punt are rough. So is a muffed punt. When those relatively rare events happen, they have an outsized impact on the outcome of a game. They are also things that are rare enough that it’s hard to say whether or not they are part of a trend or just one-off freak events that loom particularly large when they happen in a 4 game season and also against your biggest rivals.
Meanwhile, underneath the hood is reason for optimism. Longhetto was accurate when his kicks weren’t blocked. Remigio nearly housed a couple of returns. Sheahan was very solid outside of the Oregon State game. And maybe most importantly, special teams mistakes were so critical to two games that there’s some extra attention and evaluation going into how Cal is approaching the unit this year.
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 and time to not let David Shaw eat our lunch schematically.
Next week: looking ahead to the 2021 Cal Defense.