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October 13, 2012

IN FOCUS: Special Teams Battle



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The California football team is averaging 62.3 yards per kickoff this season, with junior kicker Vince D'Amato tallying a total of 11 touchbacks. Yet, the Bears are 10th in the Pac-12 in kickoff coverage, allowing an average of 22.3 yards per return.

"I think that we put in a number of different schemes in the Southern Utah game, and we let a few get out the gate there," said Cal special teams coordinator Jeff Genyk. "I thought last week we were in really good shape, going inside the 20. We just have to continue to make sure we got off blocks and make tackles."

Washington State is averaging 25.3 yards per kickoff return -- second in the Pac-12 -- in large part thanks to true freshman Teondray Caldwell.

"He's fast and he finds the holes," said D'Amato. "I think that's going to be important, that our guys get down there fast and close any gaps that there are. I've been working on putting a little more hang time on it, and just driving it a little bit more, putting it higher and further.

"I think I'm going to do the same as always. I'll kick it deep, and probably put a little more hang time on it. Hopefully, the elevation helps it a little bit so I can maybe get some touchbacks there. I know I'm confident in my cover guys. They're pretty strong."

The 5-foot-8, 189-pound tailback has been electric on kickoff returns this season, sitting atop the conference leaderboard in return average (26.8 ypr) and 10th in the league in all-purpose yards per game (116.5).

"Their kickoff returner, Teondray, he has really a knack for making a play when he gets to that first level -- that wedge blocking area," Genyk said. "He has an amazing jump cut for such a young player, and of course, he's made significant plays against Oregon, BYU and Colorado. It's a significant challenge for us. I think they do a good job blocking."

Caldwell -- an early-enrollee this past spring -- has broken off returns of 63 yards, 54 yards and a season-best 92-yarder against the Ducks. His big-play ability rivals that of the Bears' own return man -- sophomore Brendan Bigelow.

"The thing I would say that Bigelow is that he's got tremendous speed, but he is still developing and growing as a player, insofar as having great vision in the interior of the kickoff return," Genyk said. "Teondray, he really has a knack, from a vision standpoint. If there's a gap -- if you have one guy out of their fit or their lane, he's going to make you pay."

Bigelow -- who figures to continue to see his role in the offense expand as the season goes on -- is perhaps at his deadliest in space, and there is no better way to get him in space than to have him return kicks. This season, Bigelow is fifth in the Pac-12 in kickoff return average, tearing off 24.1 yards on average. But, for him to be effective, of course, the Cougars have to kick in his direction.

"I've been watching really closely how they roll and how the players come down. They're pretty good," Bigelow said. "I'm just going to have to go out and see what happens. I've got faith in my team that they're going to block for me and create those holes out there for me. We'll see."

Arizona State made sure to keep the ball away from Bigelow -- not allowing him to return a single kickoff -- but if Washington State tries to kick it to senior Mike Manuel, they won't exactly be kicking it into a black hole -- Manuel has averaged 18.0 yards on his nine kickoff returns.

"They come down, but they twist a little bit," Bigelow said. "They do a lot of twisting. That could be a little problem, right there, but I think my team can pick that up."

If the Cougars do want to minimize the return game, they certainly have the leg man to do it in Michael Bowlin. Bowling has 11 touchbacks on kickoffs this season, and is bolstered by a unit which ranks No. 3 in the league in kickoff coverage (45.8 yards net average).

"Their kicker, from a kickoff standpoint, he's got over 50 percent of his kicks are deep touchbacks or out the back of the end zone, so he really prohibits a lot from a kickoff return standpoint," Genyk said.

Bowlin is also one of the top punters in the conference. His 43.0 yards per punt ranks sixth in the conference, with 10 punts of over 50 yards and three of over 60.

"It's challenging, because he has had some amazing punts, but in the last two games, his punts were in that 35-40-yard area, so it's challenging from the standpoint of where exactly to put [punt returner] Keenan Allen," Genyk said. "Keenan's got great instincts, and he usually can field the ball, even if it's over his head, but it's a challenge to know where that ball's going to be, so we can set up our return properly."

Allen is the best punt returner in the Pac-12, averaging 14.1 yards per return, including a 69-yard punt return for a touchdown. His athleticism and his vision should help in judging the flight of Bowlin's punts, and even if he has to turn around and run a ball down, he has the ability to make a positive play materialize.

"It's a challenge from the standpoint of where to line Keenan up to receive the punt, and then also, the punts have been on different trajectories, also," said Genyk. "They're shorter and their wobbly, and all of the sudden, he'll kick a rocket that turns into 60 yards -- I think that's a challenge."

The two blocked extra points last week and D'Amato's horrid day in Columbus against Ohio State have left some ugly scars on the Cal special teams' resume this season, but the Bears have seen some soft spots in the Cougars this week that may give them the chance to turn someone else into the goat for a change.

While junior field goal kicker Andrew Furney is 14-for-15 on PATs this season and 9-of-11 on field goals, with a long of 60 yards and his only two misses coming from 40 yards or longer, Genyk has noticed at least one chink in his armor.

"You certainly want to have good push inside and really challenge him from a trajectory standpoint," Genyk said. "We'll get some of our taller players who can jump, because upon occasion, he does have a lower-trajectory kick. It's a matter of push and timing that jump so you can try to affect that kick and block it."

As for Cal's own protection issues, Genyk says that it's a case of the interior linemen -- in this case, Freddie Tagaloa and Viliami Moala -- being a bit too aggressive.

"Both of our guards were way too aggressive, and in being aggressive, they were attempting to really defend their side, but they fell forward and that provided some gap issues for our tackles, and that's really where our breakdowns came," Genyk said. "You've got to make sure that you can handle guys in your gap, and if there aren't guys in your gap, you've got to make sure that you're building a wall. We're only as strong as our weakest link, so if you're falling forward, you've got gaps open."


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