CU Season Preview – Special Teams

Special Teams

Roster – Kickers/Punters

— Seniors: Diego Gonzalez (K); Cameron Silzer (P); Chris Hill (LS)

— Juniors: Chris Graham (K/P); Cutler Haverson (K)

— Sophomores: Alex Kinney (P)

— Red-shirt freshmen: J.T. Bale (LS)Davis Price (K); Cole Cirillo (P); Nick Porter (K)

— True freshmen: none

— bold (returning starter from 2015) … italicized (walk-on)

Roster – Returners

— Seniors: None

— Juniors: Donovan Lee (KR); Shay Fields (PR); Phillip Lindsay (KR)

— Sophomores: Jay MacIntyre (PR);

— Red-shirt freshmen: none

— True freshmen: TBD … wide receivers Johnny Huntley; Anthony Julmisse; Derrion Rakestraw … or defensive backs Ronnie Blackmon; Trey Udoffia; Ca’Ron Baham

— bold (returning starter from 2015) … italicized (walk-on)


Reasons to be excited:

— Returning specialists give Buff fans reason for confidence

The career of punter Alex Kinney could not have gotten off to much worse of a start. A true freshman starting on the road against Hawai’i, Kinney’s first collegiate offering was blocked, with the Buffs falling behind 8-0 a few moments later.

Kinney continued to improve throughout the season, however, with his 40.1 average ranked third out of the seven of CU’s true freshmen punters (trailing only Matt DiLallo [43.7 in 2006] and Darragh O’Neill [42.6 in 2011]).  Kinney had 66 punts on the season, with a net average of 38.1; 73 percent of his kicks went unreturned as 22 were fair caught and 14 were downed (he had just one touchback).  He tied the school record for the most punts inside-the-10 with 10 (which was a freshman record), and he set the frosh mark for the most inside-the-20 with 23 (topping the old mark of 21).

The other returning specialist, senior kicker Diego Gonzalez, posted respectable numbers in 2015. He connected on all 35 of his extra point attempts—helping to extend Colorado’s streak to 138 made in a row—and made good on 18-of-29 field goal attempts. His 89 points scored were the fifth-most point scored by kicking in a single-season at CU (record in 98).

And there are reasons to believe Gonzalez will be even better in 2016. In the spring, the coaches selected him as one of two recipients of the Bill McCartney Award, presented to the players who were the most improved on special teams.  He also won the Iron Buffalo Award for the specialists during spring practice, which recognizes hard work, dedication, toughness and total lifting performance.


The Buffs have a plethora of talented options to return kicks

On the pre-fall depth chart, Phillip Lindsay is the first choice at the kickoff returner position, with Jay MacIntyre being the primary punt returner. While both have experience at those positions (Lindsay was second on the team in kickoff returns in 2015; MacIntyre was second on punt returns), those names may or may not be atop the roster come September 2nd.

Nothing against either option, but the Buffs will have other options this fall. For starters, returning junior Donovan Lee actually led the team in kickoff returns in 2015, with 22 (Lindsay had seven).

Then there is the long list of new Buffs who have joined the team in 2016. There are three speedy true freshman wide receivers – Johnny Huntley; Tony Julmisse; and Derrion Rakestraw – who may find their way onto the field as returners.

There are also three true freshmen defensive backs – Ca’Ron Baham; Ronnie Blackmon; and Trey Udoffia – who may lose their red-shirts due to the pressing need for warm bodies in the secondary. If any of the trio tear off their red-shirts to earn time as nickel or dime backs, they may well also be pressed into duty as special team contributors as well.

And don’t forget there are two junior college transfers who joined the team this spring – wide receivers Kabion Ento and Juwann Winfree. Either or both could bring not only speed, but collegiate experience, to the return game.


Reasons for Concern

Numbers from the special teams need to improve

Diego Gonzalez did set a CU record for field goals by a first year kicker, with 18, and did connect on the first five field goals of his career as a Buff. He also limped to the finish last year, making only one of his final five attempts of the season. With Colorado facing a reputation as a team which cannot win the close games, there cannot be a crisis of confidence when it comes to the field goal kicker.

The coverage game also needs to improve. Colorado was an unimpressive 82nd in the nation in kickoff coverage, giving up over 1,000 yards (a 22.34 yards per return average) to the opposition. With the Buffs improving their overall speed, as well as the overall depth of the roster, there needs to be significant improvement in this area.

On the return side, Colorado was a woeful 94th nationally in punt returns. Despite playing 13 regular season games, the Buffs were unable to generate even 100 yards in punt returns in 2015. Nelson Spruce did have a 45-yard punt return against USC, and Jay MacIntyre did contribute a 31-yarder … but that means the Buffs 14 other punt returns  – in all of 2015 – netted 23 yards.

In other words, Colorado had two punt returns of note during the 2015 campaign, but otherwise averaged about one punt return per game … and less than two yards per return.


Too many cooks (or not enough) can spoil the broth

Colorado has exactly zero special teams coaches.

The Buffs have two offensive coordinators, but no one who has assistant coach/special teams attached to their title.

Colorado does have a new “Director of Quality Control/Special Teams” by the name of Matt Thompson (bio). Thompson came to CU from just down the road in Broomfield, where he ran the Elite Kicking Academy, which trained high school, college and National Football League free agents.

Mike MacIntyre and his staff will be coaching special teams by committee this fall, and we’ll have to see how that works out.

Last season, Colorado averaged 40.12 yards per punt, with a net of 36.7 yards. Opponents, meanwhile, averaged 41.41 yards per punt, with a net of 37.7 yards.

Last season, Diego Gonzalez connected on 62.1 percent of his field goal attempts. Opponents, meanwhile, connected on 72.7 percent of their field goal attempts.

A yard less on every punt than the opponents during the season … ten percent fewer field goals made.

An argument could be made that the Buffs’ specialists need more unit specific coaching, not less.


Bottom Line … As with much of the Colorado roster, the pieces do appear to be in place for the Buff special teams to show significant improvement in 2016. Alex Kinney is just a sophomore, and shows promise of continuing in the tradition of fine CU punters. Diego Gonzalez, while not an all-Pac-12 performer, has the potential of a solid senior season.

The reason for excitement in this unit stems from the potential of the return teams to turn into something, well, special.

In 2013, Mike MacIntyre’s first season, Colorado had a grand total of 45 yards in punt returns. That number rose to 117 yards in 2014 before falling back to 99 yards last fall.

Could this be the season in which punt returns actually become an offensive weapon for the Buffs?

The kick return game could also see a step up in 2016. There are no fewer than eight new players on the roster who could be asked to return kicks … and perform well.

One thing for certain: If Colorado is to go bowling for the first time in nine seasons, special teams will play a significant role.



5 Replies to “CU Preview – Special Teams”

  1. Wasn’t Neinas the ST coach? Maybe the committee approach is the way to go. Could not be worse than with Neinas!

  2. You menation “Perhaps having a dedicated special teams coach isn’t a bad idea”. Didn’t we have that with Toby Neinas up until this year?

  3. Go buffs. I must say that while I withhold judgement on special teams by committee, I wish I heard mention that someone besides the head coach is responsible for the unit.

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