Countdown to Spring Practices – Special Teams

… Program Note … Colorado’s first of 15 spring practices will be conducted on Monday, March 18, with the spring game scheduled for Saturday, April 27th, at Folsom Field.

In addition to a look at the current roster and questions which Coach Prime & Co. will be looking to address this spring, we’ll take a look at the odds of whether the described unit is likely to add new players – or face attrition – after the spring.

Previously posted:

— Specialists (3) …

Returning starter (bold); walk-on (italics); early-enrollee (EE); summer-arrival (SA):

  • Seniors … Mark Vassett (P)
  • Juniors … Alejandro Mata (PK) … Jace Feely (PK) … Cristiano Palazzo (PK) 
  • Sophomores …
  • Red-shirt freshmen …
  • 2024 Signees …

The Stats … 

Alejandro Mata took over for Jace Feely  as CU’s primary placekicker early on during the 2023 season, and Mata was money … from inside the 40-yard line. Mata was 10-for-12 on field goal attempts on the season, with both misses coming from outside of 40 yards (including a missed 44-yarder late in the 34-31 loss to Arizona). Feely, meanwhile, went 4-of-7 in his field goal efforts, with a long of 49 (his only make from over 40 yards in three attempts).

Overall, CU’s placekickers were 14-of-19 (73.6%), while CU’s opponents were only 10-of-17 (58.8%).

So … on the whole the Buff kickers held their own in 2023, but without a reliable placekicker from outside of 40 yards, even greater pressure was placed upon a CU offense which had its own struggles with which to contend.

There was also a significant problem with the kickers last year when it came to kickoffs. Colorado had 60 kickoffs last season, with five of those kicks going out-of-bounds, giving opponents the ball at the 35-yard line (not to mention renewed momentum on the heels of a CU score). Meanwhile, Colorado opponents had 71 total kickoffs last season … with none of those kicks winding up out-of-bounds.

Not a great stat for the kickoff specialists (all three of CU’s kickers were given the chance to take over the kickoff job, including walk-on Cristiano Palazzo, with none of the three able to master the task of keeping the ball in the playing field.

What’s more … Even when the CU kickers were able to keep the ball in play, they weren’t able to kick the ball deep. Out of CU’s 60 kickoffs, only 25, or 41%, went for touchbacks. Conversely, 53 of CU’s opponents 71 kickoffs, or 74%, went through the end zone unreturned.

Add it all up, and CU’s offense, on average, started every single drive last season three yards further away from the opposing goal line than did their opponents.

In a game of inches, that was a huge deficit.

There was better news in the punting game, however.

Mark Vassett, the Vanderbilt transfer, had an excellent season in 2023. Owing to two blocked punts, Vassett’s overall average of 43.5 yards per punt was almost identical to the opposition. That said, Vassett had 22 punts inside the 20-yard line (compared to only 13 by opposing punters), with 16 punts of over 50 yards (compared to only seven by opponents).

It would not be a surprise to see Vassett on some All Big 12 preseason lists this summer, with the only concern here being that Vassett has no established backup, or incoming freshman to take over for him in 2025.

Nationally … CU in 2023 … 

  • Kick returns … 21.79 yards/return … 33rd nationally
  • Kick return defense … 23.88 yards/return … 119th nationally
  • Punt return … 10.35 yards/return … 38th nationally
  • Punt return defense … 7.56 yards/return … 62nd nationally
  • Net punting … 40.58 yards/punt … 32nd nationally

What to watch for …

While the kicking specialists are already in place for the 2024 season, that is not be the case for the returners.

Senior Xavier Weaver was CU’s primary punt returner last season, and while Weaver didn’t have many chances at a punt return (thanks to a porous CU defense) he was effective when given the opportunity. Weaver only had eight punt returns on the season, but averaged 16.5 yards per return (with a long of 51 yards). Had Weaver had more opportunities, he might have led the nation in that category (the cutoff being an average of one punt return/game, with only two players having a higher average over the course of the season than did Weaver).

Colorado does have Jimmy Horn and Dylan Edwards returning, two players who returned kickoffs and punts alongside Weaver last fall, but both of those players may be expected to focus more on their offensive responsibilities.

So this spring may be time for Florida Atlantic transfer LaJohntay Wester to introduce himself to the Buff Nation. As an Owl in 2023, the 5’11”, 167-pound Wester was named the American Athletic Conference Special Teams Player of the Year and earned First-Team honors at both wide receiver and special teams. Wester was also named  to the FWAA (Football Writers Association of America) First Team All-American as a Punt Returner … while also hauling in 108 catches for 1,168 yards and eight touchdowns.

Special teams are not a high priority in spring ball, but Wester may make a name for himself this spring nonetheless.

Burning questions for spring … 

  • Is the placekicking job settled, with Alejandro Mata CU’s kicker, or does Jace Feely have a chance to retake the starting position?
  • Can any of CU’s three kickers find a way to keep kickoffs in the field of play? And, if so, can any of them prove that they can kick the ball out of the end zone for touchbacks … like say, every other team does?;
  • Is Mark Vassett poised to become another in a long line of great Colorado punters? Does CU have a backup plan if Vassett gets hurt?; and
  • Even though the return game is not given much attention in the spring, can LaJohntay Wester turn enough heads this spring to establish himself as the primary punt and kick returner for the 2024 season?

Addition/Attrition likelihoodLow … Kickers aren’t as mobile as some other positions on the team, and if one of CU’s kickers (Jace Feely) didn’t see a future in Boulder, they likely would have moved on in the first session of the Transfer Portal. If there is a young punter out there looking for a new home (perhaps even a walk on), CU may take a look, but it’s more likely at this point that CU won’t be back on the market for new kickers and punters until this December’s Transfer Portal.


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