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Arizona football: All about the special teams

Alex Zendejas will get one more chance to get everything straightened out. Photo by Mark J. Rebilas-US PRESSWIRE

Arizona Wildcats coach Mike Stoops said Monday that senior place-kicker Alex Zendejas is going to get his job back — at least for this week’s game against Oregon.

And Zendejas talked after Monday’s practice, talking about how he is “grateful and blessed” to be given a second chance.

“That’s all you can ask for sometimes — just another chance to get out there,” Zendejas said.

“I’ve continued to work just to get another chance. I’ve continued to prepare like I was going to play. I haven’t taken a day off.”

As far as redemption stories goes, this could be a doozy.

Zendejas has been the target of fan’s venom since missing two PATs against Arizona State (you all know the story), and then losing his job in camp to Jaime Salazar, who then promptly sprayed kicks all over the stadium and lost the job after three games.

Zendejas — whose game-winning kick against ASU in 2009 seems as if it never happened — could hear some of the biggest cheers, mock cheers or boos Saturday night.

But that is just part of the special teams story for the Wildcats. Let’s take a look at some others:

Who is next if Zendejas struggles?

Senior John Bonano figures to get the next shot. He has a big leg, and has been doing well in his role as the kickoff man. Seven of his 12 kickoffs have gone into the end zone for touchbacks.

Last season, only 12 of his 69 kickoffs resulted in touchbacks.

Part of the problem in 2010 was that he was place-kicking on the side and ended up “over-kicking,” special teams coach Jeff Hammerschmidt said.

“He messed up his groin and stopped kicking off really well,” Hammerschmidt said. “In the back of my mind, I don’t want that to happen because he over-kicked.”

Bonano competed some at place-kicker in the spring, but there wasn’t enough evidence there to make a change at that time. For now, Bonano will do some place-kicking in practice while hopefully not messing up his good kickoffs.

“I told him, just prepare yourself if a field goal is missed,” Hammerschmidt said.

The punt game is in fine shape

While Salazar hasn’t delivered after arriving from junior college, punter Kyle Dugandzic has. He is fourth nationally with an average of 49.4 yards, and Arizona is fourth in the country in net punting at 43.3 yards.

That’s a huge improvement over last season’s net average of 34.1 yards.

Eight of Dugandzic’s 13 attempts have gone for at least 50 yards, but Hammerschmidt is mostly looking for direction and placement. That’s key this week, as Arizona doesn’t want to give open space to any number of speedy Oregon returners.

If Duganzic can force fair catches or pin the returner near the sideline, all the better.

“I always knew he was a great directional kicker,” Hammerschmidt said. “He has been impressive so far.”

Oregon has a punt return touchdown from tailback LaMichael James this season, and has also used Kenjon Barner (who is expected back after missing the past two games because of injury) and superb true freshman tailback De’Anthony Thomas.

The Ducks haven’t even used cornerback Cliff Harris, who was suspended for the opener and has been working his way back into full-time roles. Harris had four punt returns for touchdowns last season.

“They’ll scare you with their skill,” Hammerschmidt of Oregon’s return teams.

It doesn’t help the punt coverage that the injury bug has taken a bite here, too. Elliott Taylor, a walk-on who ran a 10.44 100 meters for the UA track team in the spring, has been one of the team’s gunners, but he is out with a knee injury.

Hammerschmidt said he expects defensive backs Jourdon Grandon and Shaquille Richardson to be the starting gunners — the speedy guys on the outside who have the first crack at stopping the returner.

What about the return game?

Arizona isn’t doing much on punt returns after losing projected starter Jonathan McKnight to an ACL injury during camp. Richard Morrison has three returns for 18 yards. David Douglas is mostly back there to make a fair catch.

The kick return game has potential with freshmen Garic Wharton and Ka’Deem Carey, but the results are average so far — 22.4 yards per return, ranking 56th nationally. Carey has three attempts for an average of 27.0 yards.

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