Arizona making special teams changes before playing Oregonby Anthony Gimino on Nov. 19, 2010, under Sports
Arizona spent part of its bye week practices figuring out how to improve special teams.
There aren’t many options in the kicking positions — although the Wildcats will tweak that a bit (more on that below) — but the coaching staff has found reason to overhaul kick coverage.
The bottom line: To get better on special teams, you need better players.
“It’s been pretty much my fault, but we’ve been getting away with using some backup guys who are out there helping,” said special teams coach Jeff Hammerschmidt.
“But when you go down for the first kickoff against USC, and three guys miss tackles in space, you kind of go, ‘Wait a minute, we’re playing USC and we have to play with the same kind of guys.’ For us to do that, there are some starting guys who are going to have to step up and be on everything.”
So, look for guys such as starting linebacker Jake Fischer, starting linebacker Paul Vassallo, starting cornerback Robert Golden, nickel safety Adam Hall and defensive end D’Aundre Reed to pick up special teams duties at Oregon next Friday.
USC’s Robert Woods had a 34-yard kick return on his first attempt last Saturday. The Trojans’ second attempt went for 32 yards, but was nullified because of holding. On its kickoff to start the second half, Arizona put Reed on the kick coverage team.
“I said, ‘OK, here is where you line up and here is where you run down,’ and he ran down and made the tackle. We need to do that with about four guys,” Hammerschmidt said. “We’re going to wear them out a little bit.”
Reed grabbed Woods from behind, stopping him for a 9-yard return.
“We have to commit some more personnel (to special teams),” Stoops said after the game.
Special teams have often been a proving ground for backups and young players.
“Our philosophy has been, how can you expect to start on offense or defense if you can’t play special teams,” Stoops said. “That where you should start your development as a player.”
But perhaps that’s a luxury Arizona can no longer afford.
The Wildcats’ next two opponents are among the most dangerous in the nation on kick returns. Oregon is 21st in the nation with 24.03 yards per game. Arizona State is No. 1, averaging 26.64 yards with two touchdowns (and another return that was stopped at the 1 by Wisconsin).
Oregon’s Josh Huff is averaging 28.4 yards per return; ASU’s LeQuan Lewis is at 29.38 yards per attempt. The Ducks’ Cliff Harris is the national leader in punt returns, including four returned for touchdowns, but punt coverage is a different animal than kick coverage, and Hammerschmidt said UA’s punt team appears solid.
One change, though, on the punt team.
Starting placekicker Alex Zendejas will take over pooch-punting duties from Keenyn Crier, who especially struggled in that area earlier in the season. Zendejas had one such attempt against USC, hitting a 35-yarder out of bounds at the 6 … just how the coaches would have drawn it up.
Zendejas did so well with that attempt that the coaches gave him another chance from the UA 26. That didn’t do so well, as Zendejas hit one low and short, covering 30 yards.
“He does a great job of directional punting, and that is what we need,” Hammerschmidt said.
Zendejas is struggling with his place-kicks, however, too often hitting low line drives that can be blocked.
“It’s just a lapse once in a while,” Hammerschmidt said. “Guys miss field goals, and I think he will be OK. He works hard at it and it hurts him more than anybody.”