UCLA was amid a torrid rally midway through the fourth quarter of its Pac-12 South showdown with Arizona State last November. Down 35-13 at halftime of the de facto divisional championship, the Bruins outscored the Sun Devils 20-3 in the second half and were driving for more.
But with under five minutes remaining in the final period, a drive stalled out at the Arizona State 21-yard line. Kicker Ka'imi Fairbairn came on to attempt a 38-yarder that would've drawn UCLA within two, but the kick was no good.
There's no downplaying the importance of special teams at UCLA. Another one of the program's more heartbreaking losses in the Jim Mora era also included a notable special teams misfire—a 51-yard attempt in the 2012 Pac-12 Championship Game that ended the Bruins' Rose Bowl dreams.
However, special teams have also played a key role in the program's resurgence since Mora's arrival before the 2012 campaign.
In 2012, UCLA's eight blocked kicks tied Rutgers for best in the nation. Last year, the Bruins blocked another four to finish tied for No. 10.
But while the Bruins' number of blocks declined, the team vastly improved in its return coverage.
|UCLA Special Teams Under Jim Mora|
|Season||Opp. Avg.Yards Per KR (National Rank)||Opp. Avg.Yards Per PR (National Rank)||Kicks/Punts Blocked (National Rank)|
|2012||21.86 (76)||7.44 (54)||8 (1t)|
|2013||18.67 (17)||3.94 (16)||4 (10t)|
UCLA has flourished on special teams by utilizing some of the roster's greatest talents. Take Myles Jack; before he was shining at running back, the Freshman All-America linebacker was already a two-way standout, blocking one of those four kicks.
Kenny Orjioke, one of the linebackers vying to replace All-American and first-round NFL draft pick Anthony Barr, made an impact on special teams a year ago.
This season, another cornerstone of the defense will play a key role on special teams. Cornerback Ishmael Adams will team with Fabian Moreau to give the Bruins one of the most formidable secondaries in the Pac-12, but Adams will also double as UCLA's returner.
Adams took over return duties late last season out of necessity, with Devin Fuller and Steven Manfro both shelved against Arizona State.
"Ish raised his hand,” Mora said of Adams' move to returner, per Chris Foster of the Los Angeles Times. “We knew he played some running back in high school.”
Adams capitalized on the opportunity with 58- and 69-yard kickoff returns as well as a 49-yard punt return.
Indeed, the Bruins special teams will feature some familiar faces in 2014. But there's one key, new face who will be setting the tone.
Assistant coach Jeff Ulbrich has been integral to the performance of the special teams the last two seasons. FootballScoop.com named him Special Teams Coordinator of the Year in 2013, but Ulbrich transitioned to his new role as defensive coordinator in the spring.
That leaves Mike Tuiasosopo overseeing the unit, and the UCLA assistant will face an adjustment period. Mora told Jack Wang of the Los Angeles Daily News that Tuiasosopo is "feeling his way" through the new responsibility and, to that end, leaning some on new running backs coach Kennedy Polamalu.
Polamalu, Mora's headline-grabbing offseason hire, had a hand laying the foundation for UCLA rival USC's dominance in the 2000s. His duties with the Trojans in the early part of last decade included special teams coordination.
In 2003, Polamalu's final season as the Trojans' special teams coordinator, Reggie Bush ran back a return for a touchdown for the first time in his collegiate career. That was 11 years ago, which may seem like ancient history, but it's only four years longer ago than UCLA had its last kick taken to the house.
Adams told the Los Angeles Daily News in December that he wants to give the Bruins' otherwise standout special teams that one highlight reel moment it's lacked since 2007.
"All the players are excited to see one," he said. "I’m definitely looking for it, obviously. I want to return one for a touchdown more than anybody else."
Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Statistics compiled via CFBstats.com.
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