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Spring Practices … First Look: Special Teams

Program Note … This is the final installment of the pre-spring practices previews. Spring practices begin on Monday, March 18th, and continue on to the Spring Game (April 27th, noon, Pac-12 Networks) ..

… Previously posted unit previews: QuarterbacksRunning BacksWide Receivers/Tight EndsOffensive LineDefensive LineLinebackersDefensive Backs

The roster: 

KICKERS (2 scholarship):

Seniors: Davis Price
Juniors: James Stefanou
Sophomores: None
Redshirt freshmen: None
True freshmen: None

bold: denotes returning starter

PUNTERS (1 scholarship):

Seniors: Davis Price; Alex Kinney
Juniors: None
Sophomores: None
Redshirt freshmen: None
True freshmen: None

bold: denotes returning starter

LONG SNAPPERS (1 scholarship):

Seniors: J.T. Bale
Juniors: None
Sophomores: None
Redshirt freshmen: None
True freshmen: None

bold: denotes returning starter

The stats (2018)

James Stefanou … eight games … five-of-eight field goals … Long of 41 yards … misses from 37, 43, and 38 yards …

Alex Kinney … four games … 16 punts … 670 yards (41.88 yard average) …  seven inside 20-yard line …

Davis Price … ten games … 48 punts … (38.38 yard average) … 20 inside 20-yard line … one field goal attempt (miss from 53 yards) …

Evan Price … two games … four-of-five field goals … Long of 37 yards … miss from 48 yards …

Tyler Francis … two games … two-of-two field goals … Long of 48 yards …

 

No Name Tags Required … 

Colorado has a great number of new faces coming to Boulder. In addition to the 25 new members of the Recruiting Class of 2019, there are seven new coaches making the rounds, getting used to their new surroundings.

In the special teams room at Colorado, however, no new introductions are necessary.

Ross Els returns as the special teams coach, and the kickers, punters, and even the long snapper are very familiar with one another.

Kicker James Stefanou has been the starting kicker the past two seasons … and the junior from Australia is the least experienced Buff on the special teams roster.

Punter/kicker Davis Price has three years in the program, long-snapper J.T. Bale has played in every game for the past three seasons, and punter Alex Kinney has already been on the field wearing black-and-goal for four years.

Yes, four years.

(Kinney was injured during the Nebraska game last fall, and ultimately saw action in only four games. Taking advantage of a new rule which went into effect for the 2019 season, which permits players to play up to four games without losing a season of eligibility, Kinney gets to repeat his senior year).

That’s a great deal of experience … which bodes well for CU’s immediate future.

Still, there is not much in the way of new blood on the roster.

Assuming no injuries to the roster, the Buffs are set with Alex Kinney at punter and James Stefanou at kicker, with Davis Price an experienced back up.

Next year? James Stefanou should be back for his senior year at kicker, while at punter, Alex Kinney will finally be moving on, replaced by …

Sam Loy.

The former second-team All-SEC punter at Vanderbilt, Loy transferred to Colorado last year, and sat out his transfer year in 2018.

To refresh your memory … Loy punted 132 times for 5,407 yards in his two years with the Commodores, for an average of 41.0 yards per boot.

Loy was poised to be Kinney’s replacement, as the Buffs were assuming Kinney would graduate after the 2018 season.

Now, the Buffs have two quality punters on the roster – three if you count Davis Price, who actually had most of the punts for the Buffs last year.

After that?

Crickets.

There are no scholarship underclassmen on the special teams roster. At kicker, preferred walk-ons Evan Price (who went four-of-five in field goal attempts last fall) and Tyler Francis are red-shirt freshmen (Price only played in two games last season, so, like Kinney, did not burn a year of eligibility).

At the long-snapper position, freshmen walk-ons James Townsend and Derek Bedell, Jr., will be getting a look to see who will replace four-year starter J.T. Bale.

And at punter … nada.

Other than Kinney and Loy, there are no punters on the CU roster.

So look for Mel Tucker & Co. to be recruiting one or more specialists from the Recruiting Class of 2020.

Experience, but production is lacking … 

Despite playing at altitude in more games than any team this side of the Mountain West Conference, Colorado was only average in the kicking game in 2018.

Colorado was 55th in net punting last fall, at 37.9 yards per punt. Buff opponents, meanwhile, netted 40.5 per punt.

Net punting, though, takes into account return yards. If you remove CU’s 260-89 yard advantage in returns, Buff opponents averaged 45.67 yards per punt, while Colorado punters averaged 39.25. That’s six-plus yards per punt disadvantage for the Buffs. Over the course of the 2018 season, the punting game cost the Buffs over five football fields of yards lost to the opposition.

For a 5-7 team … that’s the difference between a bowl game and sitting home for the holidays.

In field goals, the Buffs were also on the short side of the stats sheet.

Using four kickers (for the first time in decades), the Buffs were 11-of-16 in field goals (68.8%), with a long of 48 yards. Opponents, meanwhile, were 19-of-23 in field goal attempts (82.6%), with a long of 55 yards.

Here’s hoping that there are significant improvement in the numbers this fall … after a heated competition this spring.

Will the return game also improve in Year Two under Ross Els?

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.

When it came to covering kicks, Colorado special teams were very good. The Buffs were 20th in the nation in punt return defense (4.68 yards per return), and 21st in the nation in kick return defense (18.28 yards per return).

Meanwhile, when it came to returning kicks, the Buffs were less than adequate.

In 2018, Colorado was 57th in kickoff returns (20.79 yards per return), and 76th in punt returns (7.88 per return).

Ronnie Blackmon led the team in both return categories.

In kickoff returns, Blackmon had 11 opportunities, averaging 19.1 yards per effort (Kyle Evans and Donovan Lee each had six, with Evans averaging 22.5 yards on his returns; Nixon 20.5 on his).

Blackmon fielded 30 of CU’s 33 punt returns. The junior netted 262 yards in punt returns, an 8.7 yard average.

Add in Blackmon’s frustrating penchant for fielding punts inside CU’s ten yard line … and you have reason to believe that Blackmon, a cornerback by trade, may not be CU’s primary returner in 2019.

When looking for other options, the first place to look may be the red-shirt freshmen running backs, wide receivers and defensive backs. They will have sat out their freshmen campaigns, and be eager to get onto the field.

They also will be facing rosters which have plenty of upperclassmen in front of them.

So, perhaps, a kick returner may emerge from the following list of red-shirt freshmen

  • Running backs: Deion Smith; Jarek Broussard
  • Wide receivers: Dimitri Stanley; Dylan Thomas
  • Defensive backs: Lavon Wallace; Ray Robinson; K.J. Trujillo (Trujillo is a true freshman, but an early enrollee)

Overall … 

The 2018 season was supposed to be a banner year for the CU special teams. James Stefanou had proven to be more than an experiment at kicker, and Alex Kinney was a three-year reliable starter at punter.

Neither specialist made it through the season, succumbing to injuries.

The 2019 season will then be – pardon the pun – a re-boot for the Buff kickers. Stefanou and Kinney are the incumbents, but Kinney now has a challenger in transfer Sam Loy, and Stefanou was on the sidelines watching three replacements make six-of-nine field goal attempts in his absence.

If Colorado is to post a winning record in 2019, special teams will play a vital role.

Here’s hoping that the Buff kicking game will live up to its potential …

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2 Replies to “Spring Practices … First Look: Special Teams”

    1. Thanks, Jim,
      I didn’t list non-scholarship players, and I don’t see James Townsend as a scholarship player – at least not yet.
      S

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