Here is the 10th part of our Arizona Wildcats football preview in collaboration with our Gannett partner, The Arizona Republic.
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Check back here and at azcentral.com every Friday as we roll out more of our preview every week, all the way into August.
This week: Special teams.
The kicking game was a mess last season. That’s not breaking news.
If there is one moment (or two) that will endure from Arizona’s 2010 season, look no further than the two extra point attempts that Alex Zendejas had blocked against ASU — one in the final minute of regulation, the other at the end of the second overtime.
He’s back but will have to fight for his job as a senior.
The punting game deteriorated, as the Wildcats’ net punting average dropped for the third consecutive season, down to 34.1 yards, 98th nationally. Four-year starting punter Keenyn Crier is gone, replaced by a junior college transfer.
It was all enough to put special teams coach Jeff Hammerschmidt (who also coaches defensive ends) on the hot seat. Of the place-kicking, he said: “We’ll be OK,” before adding, “or I won’t be here.”
In 2009, he kicked a last-play 32-yard field goal to beat Arizona State. The next year, he had two extra-point attempts blocked in a painful double-overtime loss to the Sun Devils. Such is the life of a kicker.
He was the flashpoint for a lot of fan anger, which he has had to deal with through the offseason. Not even Zendejas was surprised when the coaches brought in junior college transfer Jaimie Salazar to compete for the job in fall camp.
Zendejas has been accurate (31 of 41 on field-goal attempts in two years as the starter), but the coaches rarely test his range and the height on his kicks have been an issue, as everyone knows from the ASU game. Arizona has missed eight PATs in the past two seasons.
“He still needs to be more consistent,” coach Mike Stoops said. “He showed signs of it (in the spring), but it has be consistently consistent, if that makes sense.”
The transfer from Trinity Valley Community College in Texas will get every chance to win the starting place-kicking job. He earned second-team All-America honors last season from the NJCAA after making 14 of 15 field goal attempts.
Coach Mike Stoops said the kicking competition between Salazar and incumbent Alex Zendejas will “start even” will camp opens.
“We’ll try to do more intensified drills with those guys to compete,” Stoops said. “We’ll probably spend more time than we have in the past to try to get those guys ready for the season.”
Without another full-time punter on the roster after Keenyn Crier completed his eligibility last season, Arizona brought in Dugandzic at the semester break and got to work with him during the spring. The starting job is basically his by default. He’s also listed as the top holder for placekicks.
Special teams coach Jeff Hammerschmidt said Dugandzic was “trying to hurry himself” early in spring drills, but began to find his comfort zone later in practice.
Crier was known for a big, but erratic, leg … and he had trouble last season pinning opponents deep. The scouting report on Dugandzic is that he excels at direction and placement, although his right leg looked just fine, too, when he boomed a 72-yarder in his only attempt at the spring game.
Dugandzic is from Ventura (Calif.) Community College.
Gorham, the son of former UA placekicker Charlie Gorham (1972-73), has a chance to be a four-year starter as long snapper. He was the true freshman last year who entered camp most assured of playing time, and he did, indeed, start from the first game, doing a solid job.
The Arizona coaches quickly identified Gorham, from Scottsdale Chaparral High, as someone they wanted to recruit. Gorham committed in the spring of his junior season, becoming the first recruit in UA’s 2010 class.
Gorham was considered one of the top prep long snappers in the country, and he earned Arizona Republic All-Arizona honors as a senior.
This has been an area of strength for Arizona in recent seasons, but the Wildcats have to replace speedy kick returner Travis Cobb and primary punt returner Bug Wright.
Redshirt freshman Garic Wharton seems to be the best answer at kick returner. He’s arguably the team’s fastest player, and he showed show wiggle in his running style during spring drills. Perhaps he will fit in as the punt returner, too.
Some of Arizona’s young defensive backs — such as Shaquille Richardson and Jonathan McKnight — will have a chance at that role, too, each with the athleticism needed to make game-changing plays. When the Wildcats are playing it safe, they can send out sure-handed receiver David Douglas to make a fair catch.