For the first time in a long while, the UCLA football team brings back a wealth of talent and experience at positions all over the field. However, as is the case with every spring practice, there are still questions left to be answered.
Naturally, the vacancies at running back and in the secondary get the most media attention. But one unresolved unit going under the radar could end up costing the Bruins in 2013—the special teams.
The old coaching adage "defense wins championships" may be true, but special teams play can change the course of a game in an instant. A muffed punt, a breakaway return or a shanked field-goal try can be the difference between an exhilarating victory and a crushing defeat.
Special teams has normally been a strength for UCLA, but it could be perceived as a serious weakness now.
Not too long ago, the Bruins had one of the strongest kicking teams in the nation with Lou Groza Award winner Kai Forbath nailing FGs and Jeff Locke booting punts. Now, with both those players gone (Forbath to the Washington Redskins and Locke to recent graduation), the kicking game is anything but a certainty.
The only returning special teams player with experience is Ka'imi Fairbairn, a rising sophomore from Hawaii (Punahou) who handled the placekicking duties last year. Other than Fairbairn, there are two players listed as kickers on the roster, but neither has seen the field at the Division I level. So, to put it lightly, Fairbairn's development this year is supremely important.
Fairbairn had a shaky start in 2012, missing three extra points in his collegiate debut at Rice.
But as the season wore on, he found his stride and began to split the uprights consistently. Fairbairn was a perfect 54-of-54 on PATs after the first game, and he nailed 16-of-22 field goals on the year. For a true freshman, those are actually pretty solid numbers.
However, as the stakes get higher for UCLA, Fairbairn will need to step his game up.
Though he never missed from inside 30 yards, Fairbairn has only made one kick of 40 yards or longer (five tries). His most memorable long-range miss was the would-be equalizer in the Pac-12 Championship Game that veered a little too far to the left.
You can't fault him too much, though. After all, it was from beyond 50 yards and the rain was coming down in buckets in Palo Alto. But still, the Bruins would love for Fairbairn to stretch his range beyond 40 yards consistently.
In the other phases of the special teams game, there's even more uncertainty. At this point, there are no punters or long snappers listed among the Bruins' spring participants, so there's work to be done there as well.
Locke's graduation is a big blow to UCLA. He was an unshakable force in his four years with the program, locking down the punting, holding and kickoff duties in 53 starts. Locke ranks No. 2 in school history with an average of 44.23 yards per punt, and he also had dead-on accuracy to pin the opponent inside the 20-yard line.
On kickoffs, Locke was almost assured to get a touchback, but if not, his kicks at least had the hang time to let his gunners get downfield and make the tackle. His experience, leadership and performance on special teams will undoubtedly be missed.
Since there are no punters on the spring roster, it's widely assumed that incoming freshman Sean Covington will be handed the starting job. The 6'2", 195-pound specialist out of St. Petersburg, Fla. is rated as one of the best kicking prospects in the 2013 class.
According to 247Sports, Covington posted a punting average of 43.2 yards in 2011, while also notching a long of 72 yards. The field-position battle in football is greatly undervalued, and having a consistently strong punter is a massive asset.
Because of Fairbairn's standing, it's likely Covington will stick with punting and kickoff duties, but ultimately the nod will go to whoever gets the job done. If he can step in for Locke immediately, he'd be a nice weapon for Jim Mora to use next season.
If he can also put pressure on Fairbairn and ramp up the competition around kicker, that would be an added bonus.
The final phase of special teams is the return game, and if you're a UCLA fan, you know that was a frustrating problem last year. The Bruins were plagued by the fumble-bug, often coughing it up on punt and kick returns, which is the worst way to lose a turnover.
Freshmen Steven Manfro and Kenneth Walker both fell victim to the bobble but also showed great skills when they did secure the pigskin. Damien Thigpen was also a frequent returner, but his torn ACL will likely keep him off the field for the dangerous play.
Another option could be safety Randall Goforth, who had a nasty spin move for extra yards last year, but the risk of injury in an already thin secondary is troubling. If Manfro, Walker or a new name can emerge as a reliable candidate, it would be a weight off the mind of Mora and the Bruins.
Overall, it's pretty clear that UCLA has some issues to iron out on special teams, and it isn't being talked about enough. Replacing an all-conference performer like Locke, working in a young kicker and finding an answer in the return game will all be important goals for Mora in his second season. Every disadvantage that can exploited is cause for concern, and special teams could be the chink in the Bruins' armor in 2013.